Fort Smith Retiree Heading to Disney World after Successful Proton Therapy for Brain Tumors

By Marty Trieschmann

Meningiomas are tumors that grow from the membranes surrounding the brain and spinal cord. Patients can have a range of symptoms — from none to severe seizures, headaches and changes in vision, smell or hearing. Only about 15-20% of meningiomas are atypical, which means the tumors cells are neither cancerous nor benign but may become malignant at some point.

“It was inside and outside of my skull and just grew bigger and bigger,” Larey recalls of the fast-growing mass that had formed at the base of her skull.

Meningiomas are more common in older women, though the cause is unknown.

Larey with her husband and Dr. Xia on her last and final day of proton treatment.

Larey, a retired public school technology specialist, was on a trip with her daughter when she had difficulty following a conversation at breakfast. Her daughter insisted that Larey visit her primary care doctor, who ordered an MRI.

On the way home from her MRI, Larey’s phone rang on the busiest road in Fort Smith. It was the doctor’s office telling her to stop driving immediately because they had found tumors in her brain that could impair her vision. That moment suddenly changed Larey’s life as she went from going anywhere she wanted to eight months of not driving. The diagnosis also explained lots of little things that had been occurring in her life, such as accidentally hitting her husband’s car in the driveway.

Larey was referred to UAMS, where she had the operable parts of the tumor surgically removed. Standard treatment for an atypical meningioma is surgery and radiation.

Not long before the surgery, Larey’s 87-year-old mother saw a news report about the new Proton Center of Arkansas, which was about to open at UAMS. She naturally started talking to her daughter about it and wondering if proton therapy would be a viable treatment option.

When Larey’s tumors were biopsied and returned as atypical meningioma, the Proton Center of Arkansas became her first choice for radiation treatment.

The Proton Center of Arkansas, which opened in 2023, is a collaboration of UAMS, Arkansas Children’s, Baptist Health and Proton International, and is only the 43rd proton therapy center in the U.S. UAMS completed construction of a new Radiation Oncology Center in 2023, built in large part to house the new Proton Center, which takes up 9,000 square feet of the facility’s second floor.

“The opportunity to stay in Arkansas for treatment was so important, and the fact that this was the newest Proton Center in the country gave us hope. The Proton Center of Arkansas turned out to become a huge part of the Larey family.”

Larey’s treatment was guided by Fen Xia, M.D., Ph.D., chair of the Department of Radiation Oncology at UAMS and director of the Radiation Oncology Center.

“She is amazing,” said Larey of Xia, who recommended using the innovative therapy to target the residual meningioma to minimize harming Larey’s healthy brain tissues. Proton therapy, which she received in short 30-minute treatments over six weeks, also reduces the chance that her tumor will return.

Proton therapy is uniquely engineered to target both operable and inoperable tumors like Larey’s while substantially decreasing the radiation dose to non-target brain tissues.

Larey says the Proton Center team played an integral part in getting her back to living her life. She had never experienced a medical center that makes patients feel so valued.

Larey said she feared that proton therapy would be like an MRI — a procedure that has always made her anxious and uncomfortable. The staff at the Proton Center of Arkansas put her ease and quickly let her know that proton treatment was nothing like an MRI. During each treatment, she could play her favorite songs from The Eagles and Bob Seger through the treatment room speakers. The room’s ambient lighting also made the therapy more relaxing and less stressful.

“Watching the care that the Proton Center provided to all the patients experiencing so much struggle in their lives gave me so much confidence that this was the place I needed to be. Cancer is a difficult diagnosis, but this group of caring people made the Proton Center the place to be.”

Now tumor-free, Larey is driving again and spending time with family. After a recent trip to an Oklahoma casino, she won $3,000 dollars playing the slots. She’s looking forward to an upcoming family trip to Disney World, the happiest place on Earth.