Erica Domeier thought she would be preparing for her upcoming graduation and making plans for her final summer before college in June 2014. Instead, the 17-year-old was in the hospital, having recently been diagnosed with brain cancer.
It was the beginning of what would be a difficult road for Domeier. But today, because of her determination and treatment at Dana-Farber/Boston Children’s Cancer and Blood Disorders Center, she is a cancer-free college graduate.
“It’s been a really slow and difficult process, and at times I thought it would never end,” adds Domeier. “I always tried to focus on what I wanted my future to be, and although it would take time, I knew everything would be worth it in the end.”
Domeier recalls first experiencing symptoms the previous winter, when she noticed ringing in her left ear. Surprised, but not overly concerned, she assumed it was linked to the winter weather. When she discovered she could no longer hear out of that ear the following spring, she decided to seek medical attention.
Initially, her pediatrician attributed the issue to allergies. But when the medication failed to restore her hearing, Domeier saw an ear nose and throat specialist (ENT) for further testing.
The ENT ordered an MRI, which was performed on Domeier’s last day of high school. She finally got the answer to what was causing her symptoms: a tumor, which had already hemorrhaged, was entangled in her cranial nerve. Shortly thereafter, she was diagnosed with medulloblastoma, a brain tumor that originates in the cerebellum — the lower back part of the brain responsible for muscle coordination, balance, and movement.
“I was in complete shock,” recalls Domeier. “I was turning 18 years old; I thought I shouldn’t have had to think about cancer.”
The need for precision
Following her MRI, Domeier was rushed to the emergency room, where she underwent a 10-hour surgery to remove the tumor. The surgeons were able to remove it, leading to multiple complications. Domeier wasn’t able to speak, swallow, or move the left side of her face — she would have to retrain her body to do so.
As she worked to recover Domeier was introduced to Susan Chi, MD, deputy director of the Brain Tumor Center at Dana-Farber/Boston Children’s Cancer and Blood Disorders Center. Although her tumor had been removed, Domeier would need to begin cancer treatment to make sure the disease was fully eliminated.
Chi’s plan for Domeier included proton beam radiation therapy, followed by a year of intense chemotherapy and additional surgeries. Proton beam radiation therapy is a specialized form of radiation treatment utilizing a beam that has a designed ending, meaning that radiation is minimal beyond the target area in the body. Radiation therapy is a powerful tool against cancer, but it can also damage surrounding, healthy cells. In instances where brain radiation is needed, being able to precisely administer treatment only to the tumor is critical for preserving the neighboring tissue and limiting potential side effects.
A lasting influence
Since finishing treatment, Domeier’s scans have shown no sign of cancer, and she has regained her ability to speak and swallow.
Throughout it all, Domeier’s motivation and strength came not just from her family, but from the nurses who cared for her. When she re-enrolled at the University of New Hampshire, she decided to study nursing and recently graduated with honors.
Today, the 24-year-old is currently working towards earning her family nurse practitioner degree from the University of Pennsylvania.
“It was the nurses’ compassion and willingness to get to know me — not just as a patient, but as a person — that inspired me to pursue a degree in nursing,” Domeier says. “I want be like them, providing a positive light, and now help others the way they helped me.”