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Custom Treatment for an Unusual Cancer

A decade after his diagnosis, a college freshman is pursuing his dreams as his doctor cheers him on

William Dawes and Charles Rubin William Dawes with his physician, Charles Rubin, MD.

Bill and Barb Dawes were pretty sure their young son William wasn't going to be winning any college sports scholarships, or even play Little League baseball.

"William was stumbling and falling a lot from about age 5," Barb Dawes said. "At first we thought he was uncoordinated." But when the parents saw that William's left leg was noticeably thinner and shorter than the right and one side of his body was weak, they took him to several specialists, who ordered MRI scans of William's brain and spine. The scans showed a tumor had invaded William's spinal cord.

"William has a slow-growing astrocytoma, which is the most common pediatric brain tumor, but its location in the spinal cord is rare," said Charles Rubin, MD, director of the Brain and Spinal Cord Tumor Program at University of Chicago Medicine Comer Children's Hospital. Neurosurgeon David M. Frim, MD, PhD, removed as much of the tumor as possible, but most of it remained enmeshed in the spinal cord's fibers.

"[Dr. Rubin is] a great guy. He was always there during my treatments... I don't know what I would have done without him."

Only 7 years old, William was too young for radiation treatment, which would have slowed the development of his nervous system. Chemotherapy was the only option to arrest the tumor's growth. Rubin had to adapt William's year-long chemotherapy regimen from pediatric brain-cancer research studies, since none had been done on astrocytomas in the spine.

Now 18, William entered North Central College this fall, where he plans to study broadcast communications. His dream -- to be a play-by-play announcer for the Chicago Cubs.

The tumor is still present, but it hasn't progressed since treatment. William didn't play sports -- the tumor caused him to develop scoliosis and his left leg has not caught up to the right -- but he was the manager of his Montini Catholic High School football team, an announcer for the baseball team and a member of the jazz band and several honor societies. He became an Eagle Scout as a freshman.

At one football game, a fundraiser for pediatric cancer research, William was surprised to find Rubin in the stands, rooting for his patient as much as for the team. "He's a great guy," William said. "He was always there during my treatments, is genuinely interested in me, and encouraged me to do what I wanted. I don't know what I would have done without him."

January 2014

January 2014

This story originally ran in the Fall 2013 issue of Imagine, a quarterly magazine published by the University of Chicago Medicine.
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