In May 2012, Leah Snider was caught in the whirlwind that comes with being a high school senior—choosing a college, planning for prom and graduation, doubling down to get through classes and exams.
Although the West Bloomfield, Mich., student had crossed one important task off the to-do list—she was heading to Indiana University in Bloomington, Ind., in the fall—she’d added twice a week visits to a chiropractor to her schedule when she developed nagging neck pain. Although the treatment helped at first, relief was short-lived.
Leah’s doctor, believing a pinched nerve was causing the pain, prescribed physical therapy in hopes of relieving the pain that had also spread down her arm.
“It didn’t help at all,” says Leah, of the physical therapy. “I was in so much pain, I couldn’t even lift a one-pound weight.”
What should have been a summer of fun, spending long days with old friends, and getting ready for college, was anything but that.
“I was in so much pain I couldn’t do anything,” she recalls. “Everyone was hanging out, saying goodbye, but I didn’t want to leave the house. It was really hard.”
Discovery brings relief, but also a change in plans
An MRI two weeks before Leah was to say her goodbyes changed her plans. The scan showed a tumor wrapped around her spine, near the base of her hairline. Further tests revealed it was an osteoblastoma, a rare, non-cancerous tumor.
Instead of heading south to Indiana University, Leah was headed to surgery.
“I was in so much pain all the time, but I could see pictures posted online of people moving into their dorms,” says Leah. “I wanted to go to school, but I knew this was more important.”
Leah underwent two surgeries, the first on Aug. 16, to stop blood flow to the tumor. During the second surgery two weeks later, the surgeon removed as much of the tumor as possible, and replaced vertebrae with titanium rods.
Leah needed to wear a neck brace for eight weeks as she healed from the surgery. Her doctor also recommended radiation to deaden the remaining tumor on the surrounding nerve that he wasn’t able to remove.
Leah’s parents, Stephanie and Paul, began researching radiation options. Leah’s pediatrician told them about proton radiation therapy, which allows for delivery of a more precise and higher dose of radiation to the tumor, with fewer side effects and a lower risk of hurting surrounding areas.
They were thrilled to learn that the Indiana University Health Proton Therapy Center, one of the few proton radiation therapy centers in the country, was in Bloomington.
“We said, ‘No way there is there one in Bloomington!’” recalls Leah. “I thought, ‘Oh my gosh, I can go to Bloomington!’”
IU offers Leah what she needs—and more
After physicians at the IU Health Proton Therapy Center determined that Leah was a candidate for proton therapy, Leah made plans to not only begin treatment, but to begin classes at Indiana University.
“IU held my room in the dorm for me and I kept telling my roommate to wait, that I’d be there,” says Leah.
The week before Halloween Leah started what would be seven weeks of radiation, along with two, eight-week classes. Her mom was with her during the first week, and off and on as treatment continued, but she had to be in Michigan for work. Leah was mostly on her own.
Or so she thought.
“The IU Health Proton Center people were so nice,” says Leah. “They knew I was coming to school late and coming to radiation alone. They were like a family to me, since I didn’t have my family there.”
Although most of the people on her floor in the dorm knew Leah was undergoing daily radiation, she chose to keep quiet about what she was going through.
“I felt like it was a personal thing,” she says. “My roommate was really understanding, though. She knew if she came back to the room and I was sleeping, I had probably just come back from radiation.”
Before she knew it, Leah was marking the rite of passage all patients completing treatment at the IU Health Proton Center do: ringing the bell.
“When you finish treatment, you ring the bell, everyone opens doors, and comes out clapping,” explains Leah. “It was so amazing! I remember, I got in my car and called my mom, I was crying, saying, ‘I can’t believe it’s done—I did it!’”
Her last treatment was the beginning of what she says was “making the real adjustment to college.”
“Once I got back to school after Christmas break, I really started to feel like myself—and a real college student,” Leah says.
With clear scans since, Leah’s been able to devote herself to being a college student.
“Everything worked out—it was unbelievable really, the way it all did.”