There are two words Alana Cook refuses to say — brain cancer.
The 13-year-old girl said the name of her condition has been removed from her vocabulary, just as the malignant tumor was removed from her body Nov. 4 during a seven-hour operation.
Although the Northside Middle School student initially was diagnosed with choroid plexus carcinoma, Alana’s doctors since have changed her diagnosis to a papillary tumor.
Both types of tumors are located in the pineal gland, near the back of the base of the brain. Before she was diagnosed, Alana was experiencing symptoms common to both kinds of cancer, including headaches, fatigue and a condition known as hydrocephalus, which is when spinal fluid pools on the brain.
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However, papillary tumors are extremely rare, said Holly Cook, Alana’s mother. In fact, her condition is one of only 44 known cases.
Papillary tumors are also more aggressive than choroid plexus carcinoma, Cook said, and tend to have a higher rate of recurring tumors.
But even though the new diagnosis makes her situation more serious, Alana said she refuses to let the illness — which she refers to as “B.C.” — control her life.
The operation went well, but Alana’s initial recovery after surgery was difficult, Cook said.“When I woke up, I asked my mom if I had been hit by a truck, because that’s what it felt like,” Alana said.Her headaches were severe and she was in a lot of pain. But after switching medications, Alana’s recovery took off in strides — as if the basketball player were driving toward the basket for a layup.
She was moved out of the pediatric intensive care unit at Riley Hospital for Children in Indianapolis within 36 hours, Cook said, but doctors still expected her to remain hospitalized for two to three weeks.
But on Tuesday, five days after the operation, Alana’s impressive progress convinced her doctors that she could return to a more normal lifestyle much sooner than anticipated.
Since returning to Columbus on Tuesday, visits to the Cook home have been nonstop.
From the “Welcome Home Cookie” sign on her front lawn to the Cookie Monster faces hanging from the ceilings inside her home, Alana’s friends and family have come out in droves to show their support for the #COOKIESTRONG movement.
Cook began calling her daughter “Cookie” when she was a baby, but the nickname has morphed into the mantra of Alana’s supporters who want to see her grow into a healthy young woman.
News of Alana’s surgery and speedy recovery also reached her middle school halls, where eighth-grader Ashlynn Tuttle — one of Alana’s closest friends — has undertaken the task of updating her peers on Alana’s progress.
The day after her return from the hospital, the Cooks carved out a few hours Wednesday to celebrate Alana’s 13th birthday as a family.Despite being in recovery, Alana spent that evening playing with her young nephew and close family friend at Chuck E. Cheese’s.Between the pizza and the air hockey, Alana also found time to return to her one true love: basketball.
After racking up an impressive 42 baskets in Super Shot Basketball, Alana — a seventh-grader good enough to make the eighth-grade team — was declared the winner in a competition with her dad, Alan.
Those intimate family moments will become fewer and farther between in coming months as the Cooks prepare to temporarily relocate to Chicago, where Alana will begin proton radiation therapy.
Although her surgery removed the initial tumor, radiation and chemotherapy treatments are needed to prevent additional tumors from forming inside Alana’s brain.While standard radiation uses X-rays to treat cancer, the therapy Alana will undergo uses high-energy protons, which are positively charged particles, to target and kill cancer cells.The Cooks will have at least a one-week break from the hospital before going to Chicago, where they will live for four to six weeks while Alana undergoes treatment at the Chicago Proton Center, the first and only proton radiation center in Illinois.
After that, Alana will have another short break at home before returning to Riley in Indianapolis to begin chemotherapy.
As details of Alana’s treatment plan are finalized, the Cook family said they will be focusing on preparing for inevitable changes the next few months will bring to their lives.
For now, Alana has taken a break from school, but she eventually will start a home-schooling program once she is well enough to resume her studies.
Like her classmates, Alana said her teachers have been supportive of her as she has adjusted to her new reality.
While she appreciates all of the gifts, visits and support, Alana said she is already looking forward to the day when the extra attention she is getting now will be a thing of the past.
Because when that day finally comes, Alana will be free of the disease that she refuses to give into.
“I don’t say the word, but I can’t wait to say that I beat it,” she said.
After returning home from the hospital on Tuesday, the Cooks will have at least a week to rest and recover at home.
Recovering from brain surgery at home for now, Columbus middle-school student Alana Cook and her parents — Holly and Alan — will head to Chicago shortly so she can begin radiation therapy at the Chicago Proton Center. While in Chicago, the Cooks will live in family housing arranged for them by the hospital. They will stay in Chicago for four to six weeks, coming back to Columbus only on the weekends.
Once she has completed radiation, Alana will have another short break at home before beginning chemotherapy treatment at Riley Hospital for Children in Columbus.