In August 1999, Tillie Magaña had surgery to remove a benign tumor on her spine. The surgery had been a complicated one, but Tillie recovered and a few years later gave birth to her son Nicholas. Seven years after surgery, numbness, pain and discomfort began to nag at her legs and hips. She called her neurosurgeon and had an MRI to see what was going on. It turned out that new tumors had begun to appear in her lumbar spine, seven altogether. Although the tumors were benign, the pain she suffered from the pressure on her spine was intense, and aggressive treatment was needed to permanently shrink or remove the tumors.
Tillie did her research and went to a few different doctors before deciding that radiation therapy was the best option for her treatment. Having been through an intense surgery for a spinal tumor once before, she was naturally anxious about going through another procedure, albeit a noninvasive one. Her radiation oncologist comforted her immediately. "He held my hand and said, 'I am going to help you through this to the end. We're going to make sure you're okay and we're not going to leave any stone unturned.'"
After her first consultation, Tillie came in for her simulation, or imaging, where her doctors took a CT scan of her body to create a 3D image of the tumors and their position in her spine. Her treatment team created a custom mold for her to rest her arms above her head and to make sure she was always in the same position for treatment. Each session, she would lie on the treatment 'couch,' her arms stretched overhead in the mold while she held onto a bar above her head. Her team placed a triangle-shaped pillow under her knees and a sheet over her lower body until it came time to deliver the treatment.
From July 26th - August 27th, Tillie came in for radiation therapy five days a week. When her doctor explained the schedule for her treatment, Tillie realized she was supposed to have all of her final work submitted for Ministry School by August 10th. "I called my director and he said, "Don't worry…do what you can do." Despite her initial stress, Tillie completed all her required work on time and earned a 3.5 GPA. "My last treatment was on Friday the 27th and I graduated from Ministry School on Sunday the 29th."
Tillie was able to finish school successfully, though she did experience some side effects from radiation therapy. She felt occasional upset stomach and intense fatigue during and after treatment ended. Still feeling exhausted at her check-up in October, Tillie's doctor urged her to give herself more time to rest; between taking care of a 4-year-old and elderly parents, she hardly ever took a moment to herself. "After that appointment I took a different approach—slowed down a little bit—and I got through it fine."
As the result of her radiation therapy, four of Tillie's tumors disappeared completely. Three have stopped growing, and are not causing her any pain. Her doctors continue to monitor her closely to be sure those tumors do not grow. If they do, she can consider radiosurgery—a highly-accurate type of radiation therapy that delivers the radiation in higher doses than conventional radiation therapy—to treat the last three.
Though it's been a tough road, Tillie is positive and exudes strength when she talks about her experience. "Every person I've known is a much stronger person having been through it. I almost felt like Shira–if I was playing with my son, and I wasn't getting tired, I felt like ‘I can conquer anything!'"
Varian would like to thank Dr. Sinha and El Camino Hospital for their invaluable assistance in the preparation of this story.