The only thing that shined brighter than the Friday night lights at Muleshoe High School was Matthew Alarcon. As a sophomore, the 15-year-old earned a spot on the school’s varsity football team while tackling his schoolwork with ease. But with his team locked in a tight playoff race, he suffered a devastating hit that tore his anterior cruciate ligament—a key ligament that stabilizes the knee joint.
After six months of rehabilitation, Matthew was just about to return to action in April 2018 when he suffered a sudden onset of blurry vision.
“We knew it was serious when his ophthalmologist urged us to get him to the emergency room for an MRI,” says Matthew’s mother, Rhea Gonzales. “That night we found out he had a brain tumor.”
Matthew’s condition deteriorated as he began chemotherapy. The tumor, located near the center of his brain in the pineal region, grew rapidly, causing a life-threatening buildup of cerebrospinal fluid. Doctors performed emergency surgery to drain the fluid and relieve the pressure on his brain, but the tumor kept growing.
Following a weeklong hospital stay with two rounds of chemotherapy, Matthew needed another emergency surgery to remove his tumor. Surgeons were able to remove approximately 80% of the tumor, and when he regained consciousness, Matthew spent the next few months completing six more rounds of chemotherapy and relearning to walk.
After his final round of chemotherapy, his surgeons decided that it would be impossible to remove the rest of the brain tumor. However, they wanted to buy him time by attempting a third surgery to remove as much as they could.
Matthew’s father, Rick Alarcon, began desperately searching for help, calling hospitals, and scouring the web for neurosurgeons. When he came across David I. Sandberg, MD, Co-Director of the Pediatric Brain Tumor Program at Children’s Memorial Hermann Hospital, he was sure he was on to something.
“From the moment we met Dr. Sandberg, we felt like we were in good hands,” says Rick. “He explained his plan to us, and we were confident he would do everything in his power to help Matthew.”
On October 17, 2018, Sandberg took Matthew to the operating room to remove the remaining brain tumor while Rick and Rhea sat in the waiting room, praying that this surgery would save their son.
Six hours later, Sandberg rushed into the room.
“We knew from his smile that there was good news,” says Rick. “I just remember him saying they were able to remove 100% of the tumor.”
Fifteen minutes later, Matthew opened his eyes. He spoke with clarity and even cracked jokes with the nursing staff. Three days after surgery, he was healthy enough to return home.
“Brain tumors can have devastating consequences for children and teenagers who are still developing,” says Sandberg, who sees patients at UT Physicians Pediatric Surgery Texas Medical Center. “We were fortunate to remove Matthew’s tumor without complications, and we are hopeful it never returns.”
Expecting to graduate high school in 2020, Matthew continues to regain his strength and independence. Although he no longer suits up in shoulder pads and a helmet, he has become a source of inspiration for his teammates, working out alongside them and boosting morale on the sidelines.
“I take things day by day, and I’m just glad to be here and moving forward,” says Matthew. “I want to become a motivational speaker to help others.”
“This was the most difficult time of our lives, but we felt confident every step of the way with Dr. Sandberg,” says Rick. “We needed the best neurosurgeon, and we got the greatest.”
TARGETED TREATMENTS FOR PEDIATRIC BRAIN TUMORS
Traditionally, treatments for pediatric brain tumors involve surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation. But surgery is not always possible, and chemotherapy and radiation can severely damage developing bodies and nervous systems.
Sandberg is leading groundbreaking research into a safer, more effective way to treat pediatric tumors. By directly infusing drugs into the brain instead of using traditional systemic chemotherapy or radiation, Sandberg aims to bypass the side effects and provide better outcomes for children.
“The drugs used to treat cancer are toxic, but our work aims to deliver drugs in a novel way that we hope will be safer and more effective for children,” he says.
Alongside Sandberg, Rachael W. Sirianni, PhD, engineers nanoparticles that carry drugs to specific tissue sites and prolong their action. She aims to enhance the effectiveness of the drugs Sandberg uses to treat pediatric brain tumors by making the drugs less toxic and more effective at destroying cancer cells.
“We want to provide hope to children and their families in their most critical time of need,” says Sirianni. “We care deeply about this problem, and we are passionate about finding better treatments.”