20-Year-Old Genesee County Woman Fights Brain Cancer with Proton Therapy

Patient Sought Out Specialized Cancer Care Close to Home

Author: Erin Thomson

In April 2021, Jyllian Luchenbill, 20, of Swartz Creek, began to have severe and debilitating headaches. Over the next two months, the headaches worsened, and she began experiencing memory lapses and trouble concentrating.

Due to her high pain tolerance, Luchenbill initially brushed it aside. But soon, even she could no longer tolerate it.

With Covid still going around, Luchenbill first suspected she may have the virus. So, she went to urgent care, but tested negative. Pain medication did little to help her headaches. Then, when she became lethargic and unable able to move or eat for a week, her roommate became extremely concerned and urged her to go to the hospital.

It was after arriving at the hospital and receiving a series of brain scans that Luchenbill discovered the cause of her pain: a mass on her brain. She was airlifted to another facility where she went into emergency surgery to have the mass removed. When she woke up, she learned that it was malignant.

The tumor she was diagnosed with was a Grade 3 glioma with histone mutation. It’s an extremely aggressive and difficult form to treat due to its ability to infiltrate normal brain tissue, making surgical removal very difficult.

Although a majority of the cancer was removed with the tumor during surgery, there were still cancer cells that needed to be treated – and they were too close to the normal tissue in Luchenbill’s brain to be safely addressed during traditional surgery.

That’s when Luchenbill set out to find a more suitable type of treatment for her extremely rare form of brain cancer. “I wanted to find somewhere close to home that would specialize in treating the very rare type of cancer I have,” Luchenbill said. “And God led me to Karmanos.”

She scheduled an appointment with Dr. Hesham Gayar, radiation oncologist at Karmanos Cancer Institute at McLaren Flint and McLaren Proton Therapy Center. He was straightforward with her and suggested proton therapy treatment. Luchenbill was a good candidate for proton therapy treatment because of its precise aim of treating small areas without damaging the surrounding brain tissue.

“Jyllian qualified as a candidate for proton therapy because the brain is such a sensitive area and the healthy tissue in it needs to be protected while introducing radiation,” Dr. Gayar said. “Proton therapy is very precise and delivered right at the target, sparing healthy tissue and organs that surround it, while still delivering adequate amounts of radiation to treat cancer cells.”

Luchenbill was also given chemotherapy in conjunction with proton therapy under the guidance of Karmanos Cancer Institute at McLaren Flint oncologist, Dr. Sandeep Grewal. After six-and-a-half weeks of daily proton therapy treatments and chemotherapy every 30 days, Luchenbill is finally reaching the end of her treatment.

It’s been a huge success.

“I’ve had almost a year of clean scans now,” she said. “I had to take one month off of chemo for my brain to decompress, but now I’m on my last two rounds. If my scans are all clean after that, then I’ll just have to have a checkup every six months to keep an eye on it.”

Dr. Gayar is extremely pleased to see Jyllian’s imaging continue to show no signs of disease.

“Jyllian’s type of cancer is known for being aggressive, so we must follow it more closely than others,” he said. “However, if it were to grow back, proton therapy, unlike traditional radiation therapy, can be a treatment option again.”

Luchenbill had a very positive experience with the staff at Karmanos at McLaren Flint, forming strong bonds by interacting with them every day through her treatments.

“Dr. Gayar was amazing, and the nurse practitioner, Erin, did an awesome job checking up on me,” she said. “And the chemotherapy clinic was super helpful in realizing my fear of needles and blood.”

A year ago, Luchenbill could barely walk and was constantly sleeping. Now, she can walk, run, and work normally. With very few people her age going through cancer, let alone the very rare diagnosis of brain cancer, Luchenbill has found positive outcomes in connecting with others who are going through similar circumstances.

“I want to be there for newer patients who are scared and don’t know what to expect from the treatment,” she said. “I want to give them hope and show them that they can get through this difficult time in their life and come out on the other side. I’m living proof of that.

“I tell people that there are two types of cancer patients, those who are negative because they have cancer and those like me who take it in stride and who think of it like this: ‘Yes, I have cancer, but I’m still here living and doing what I need and want to do with the life I’ve been given, and I intend to live that life to the fullest.’”

Recently diagnosed cancer patients, or those looking for a second opinion, may call (855) MY-PROTON (855-697-7686) or visit mclaren.org/protontreatment.