They didn’t expect people in Oklahoma to be so nice to them.
They were used to the people back home in England, staring at their 8-year-old son’s eye tumor.
So when Paula Hitchen and Steve Lavender stepped off the plane in Oklahoma City with their son, Connah, they didn’t expect to be shown repeated kindness.
“When I came here, not just at the hospital, but everybody, they’re brilliant,” Lavender said. “They don’t stare — everybody is great. It’s something I can’t explain, but you feel at ease.”
The family has been in Oklahoma for the past few weeks as Connah undergoes proton therapy for his orbital tumor, which at one point was coming out of his eye socket.
The ProCure Proton Therapy Center in Oklahoma City is one of about 10 proton therapy centers in the United States and one of about 35 in the world.
The Peggy and Charles Stephenson Cancer Center in Oklahoma City plans to open another proton therapy center at the end of the year.
Proton therapy is a type of cancer treatment that uses beams of particles called protons to target cancer cells, according to the National Institutes of Health.
Other types of cancer treatment generally use X-rays to attack cancer cells.
One downside of using X-rays is that it is not an efficient form of radiation in terms of targeting the cancer cells, said Dr. Sameer Keole, medical director of ProCure.
With X-rays, a lot of nontarget tissue — the tissue that’s not at risk of cancer and has nothing wrong with it — is negatively affected as doctors try to get at the target tissue.
Keole said with proton therapy, doctors are able to attack the cancer cells with almost perfect accuracy.
“It may not be appropriate for every cancer, but certainly there are a lot of cancers it’s a very good treatment for,” Keole said.
More than just ‘Oklahoma!’
All that Connah’s parents knew of Oklahoma was the musical of the same name.
When they arrived at the Will Rogers World Airport, they didn’t expect staff to have a wheelchair waiting for Connah, who needs a wheelchair sometimes because of the pain from chemotherapy.
The man pushing the wheelchair immediately started joking with them, imitating a British accent and trying to talk like Ozzy Osbourne.
This was the first of many friendly encounters the family has had, they said. Whenever someone does look at Connah, they usually come up to the family, ask what Connah’s name is and tell the family they will pray for them.
This kindness helps Hitchen and Lavender cope, they said.
The family’s journey since Connah’s cancer was discovered hasn’t been easy.
At one point, Connah’s tumor was so large he needed a sling on his face to hold the tumor and keep the fluids it leaked from getting on his face.
But Connah does not act like a sick child. He does not complain about the tests and the treatment and the side effects of his treatment.
Instead, he wants to tell you about his iPad and its apps, the machine he gets treatment in, and his plans to be the next Steve Jobs or Bill Gates.
He also likes to dance like Michael Jackson, happy to sing a few lines from “Thriller” or “The Way You Make Me Feel.”
The only thing he’s scared of, he said, is the dark.
“Mom calls me her hero,” Connah said.
“Because the chemo was bad, and I’ve been through all of this.”
Connah is not the only patient from England to travel to Oklahoma.
Connah is one of many who have flown across the Atlantic Ocean to seek treatment.
It wasn’t a question for Tracy Botham and her husband if they would bring their 6-year-old daughter, Lily Rose, to Oklahoma for proton therapy.
“We wanted to give her the best chance possible,” Botham said.
Doctors told the family they could have a fully disabled child, or go spend eight weeks in the U.S. and get Lily better, Botham said.
The length of proton therapy treatment generally ranges from five to nine weeks in adults and five to seven weeks in children. Each treatment takes between 20 minutes and an hour.
For Lily, there weren’t many options. Her parents found out she had a tumor right after Christmas. Lily had been having headaches and was too sick Christmas Day to play with her toys. They took her to the doctor and found out she had a tumor.
She was rushed to the hospital and subjected to a 16-hour brain surgery.
“It was that serious, that quick, and we really didn’t have a chance to think of anything,” Botham said.
The tumor had wrapped itself around Lily’s nerves, and surgeons had to pick it out bit by bit. When Lily got out of surgery, she was in the intensive care unit for a week and couldn’t walk or talk.
Doctors told the Bothams they should consider proton therapy to help minimize brain damage.
For children like Lily and Connah, whose brains still are developing, proton therapy has shown to be less damaging, doctors said.
If Lily would have undergone traditional radiation treatment, the collateral damage could have made her deaf, her mother said.
Now, Lily is walking and talking, and her hearing is fine so far, Botham said.