Izabella “Bella” Voelker’s cancer journey started with pain in her elbow. Next, she began to get headaches. In May of 2016, the 12-year-old learned she had pineoblastoma, a very rare type of brain cancer that affects only 1 percent of children. Doctors told Bella and her family that she didn’t have long to live.
Over the summer, the Deshler, Nebraska native had two brain surgeries in Omaha. Following the second surgery, she was given just a 5 percent chance of survival. Her prognosis was so bleak that Bella began to plan her funeral and prepare her will, leaving her stuffed animals and other possessions to her sisters and friends. Still, she didn’t give up.
Radiation therapy was the next step, but Bella’s doctors in Omaha were concerned that conventional X-ray radiation could damage her developing spine and surrounding organs. They recommended she travel to San Diego for treatment at Scripps Proton Therapy Center.
Proton therapy is an extremely precise form of radiation treatment that targets cancerous cells while sparing healthy surrounding tissue. Bella’s radiation oncologist at Scripps, Andrew Chang, MD, works extensively with pediatric patients and says proton was ideal for this diagnosis.
“Radiation is a concern for any patient, and especially in the pediatric population because their bodies are still growing and developing,” he says. “In a case like Izabella’s, we’re able to avoid radiation exposure to her heart, intestines and developing breast tissue, which is always a concern in young women. It’s just more precise, with less risk of side effects.”
Over the summer, Bella received six weeks of 30-minute proton treatments, five days a week. The treatments made her slightly tired, but she had no other side effects. In fact, she felt well enough to go sightseeing, including multiple visits to San Diego’s famed Sea World aquatic park, where she became a fan of the orcas. Staff let her feed the whales and observe their training sessions. She says her visits to the park both relaxed and inspired her.
“Dealing with cancer can be hard. Having a safe place you can go and just relax and enjoy really helps,” she says. “I really want to work at Sea World now as a trainer. I’m hoping I can come back here for college and work here someday.”
After completing her proton treatments, Bella began chemotherapy at Rady Children’s Hospital San Diego, and returned to Nebraska for a final round of chemo in early 2017.
Bella’s mother, Miki, is thrilled that her daughter has defied the odds, and would recommend Scripps Proton Therapy Center to anyone in a similar situation. “The proton family here is amazing. You couldn’t get better care than you get here,” she says. “The people here take great care of your kids. The way she is doing is so much better than she would with any other treatment.”