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April 5, 2018

Arizona Superhero Harnesses the Power of Proton Beams

By SharingMayoClinic

Battling a brain tumor was made a little easier for Airick Amaya and his family when they found out he could receive proton beam therapy close to home, surrounded by his loved ones each day.

Battling a brain tumor was made a little easier for Airick Amaya and his family when they found out he could receive proton beam therapy close to home, surrounded by his loved ones each day.


Airick Amaya pretended to be Batman as he spun around, kicking the air. For his superhero effort, he was handsomely rewarded with sweet treats. It was Halloween, and 4-year-old Airick had one goal: to fill his trick-or-treat bucket to the top.

Still buzzing from the candy the next day, Airick was jumping on the couch singing when he fell and hit his head. "I thought he had just eaten too much candy," says his mother, Vanessa Bonillas. But when he began throwing up, Vanessa thought otherwise.

Airick's parents took him to the Phoenix Children's Hospital emergency department. "I kept thinking he must really have hit his head hard for him to be this ill," says Vanessa.

Airick was admitted to the hospital for hemorrhaging in his brain. But an MRI revealed something else. The images showed a golf ball-size tumor on the left side of Airick's brain. Surgery was scheduled immediately. Suddenly the head bump felt like a blessing.

"Airick hitting his head when he fell off the couch was a miracle from God," Vanessa says. "If he hadn't hit his head, we would've never known he even had this tumor until it was too late."

Uncovering the unexpected

Airick had always been healthy and cheerful, with no vision problems or other symptoms that might signal a brain tumor. His days are typically filled with play dates with his grandmother, and dirt biking and four-wheeling with his older brother.

"He's an amazing and special boy who melts hearts with his infectious smile," Vanessa says.

The surgeons at Phoenix Children's Hospital were able to remove the visible tumor. When samples of the tissue were sent for evaluation, results showed that Airick had a tumor that is rare for children called a glioblastoma multiforme.

"Glioblastoma is the most aggressive form of brain cancer and one of the most difficult tumors to treat," says Thomas Daniels, M.D., Airick's radiation oncologist at Mayo Clinic.

But the news following Airick's surgery was upbeat.

"We received the best Christmas present in the world when Airick's MRI revealed the tumor was gone," Vanessa says.

For additional treatment, however, Airick's physicians recommended he have proton beam therapy at nearby Mayo Clinic.

Opening just in time

"Every day, Airick teaches me something, such as to have more patience, to believe, to be positive and have more hope because there's always light at the end of the tunnel," Vanessa says.

Although she says she's at peace with the situation, Vanessa admits that if she had to leave her family behind to travel with Airick to another state for proton beam therapy, that wouldn't be the case.

"I'm so joyful that the Mayo Clinic program opened just in time for my son's treatment," she says.


"I'm so joyful that the Mayo Clinic program opened just in time for my son's treatment." — Vanessa Bonillas


The Proton Beam Therapy Program began at Mayo Clinic's Rochester campus in May 2015 and at Mayo Clinic's Arizona campus in March 2016. One in five patients who receive proton beam therapy at Mayo Clinic is a child. Different from conventional radiation, proton beam therapy uses pencil-beam scanning to deliver concentrated radiation to tumors, while minimizing radiation exposure to the surrounding healthy tissue.

When his final treatment session was done, Airick woke up from being sedated, kissed his stuffed dog, and hugged his mom. After 30 treatments over 42 days, Airick, accompanied by his family and his care team, excitedly rang the celebratory bell signaling the end of his proton beam therapy.

Making new memories

A few months following treatment, the family celebrated at Walt Disney World for Airick's Make-A-Wish Foundation of America Wish Trip. There he met his favorite Disney character — Olaf from the movie Frozen.

"This distraction gave us the time to be a family and enjoy the moment," Vanessa says. "Everything else could wait until we got home."


"We are looking forward to Airick returning to his normal life and not have him wake up each morning and ask, 'Mama, which hospital are we going to today?'" — Vanessa Bonillas


Over the summer, they spent time at the beach, where Airick was able to add seashells and rocks to his growing collection.

"Last year's holidays were very, very rough for us," Vanessa says. "We are looking forward to Airick returning to his normal life and not have him wake up each morning and ask, 'Mama, which hospital are we going to today?' I'd rather hear, 'What cartoons can I watch?' or 'What should I be for Halloween this year?'"

Note: A version of this story originally appeared in Mayo Clinic Magazine. 


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Tags: Cancer, Dr. Thomas Daniels, Glioblastoma multiforme, Proton Beam Therapy

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