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From Young Cowboy to Cancer Patient

Walker Huggins is known as one of the youngest music directors in the Texas rodeo industry. When he wasn’t running audio at the rodeo, he was learning to ride bucking horses and traveling across the state with his dad. With big plans ahead of him, Walker’s world suddenly shifted when the strange symptoms he had been feeling for months led him to having a seizure at home and being rushed to the hospital. He later learned he had two large tumors in his brain.

Walker went from a 16-year-old cowboy to being diagnosed with medulloblastoma, a type of brain cancer most common in children and young adults. After two succesful tumor removal surgeries, Walker was referred to Texas Center for Proton Therapy where he met Victor S. Mangona, M.D., radiation oncologist at the center who specializes in pediatric cases. Throughout proton therapy treatment, Walker’s family credits his cancer care team at the center for making them feel at home and helping Walker finally feel like himself again.

Hear Walker’s story and how he hopes to inspire others in the power of positivity, faith, and determination.

Transcript

Ted Canova: A teenager with two brain tumors somehow finds comfort, in a simple phrase.

Walker Huggins: All of a sudden, the whole room just got quiet. And the doctor looked down at me, and he said, Walker, you don't know this, but you're the talk of the hospital.

Ted Canova: Hi and welcome back to Right Here, a podcast from Texas Oncology who knows that family and friends are a huge part of cancer treatment, so being right here makes a difference. For expert cancer care, go to Texas Oncology.com. I’m Ted Canova.

Ted Canova: Not every teenager craves such attention, especially this one.

Walker Huggins: I'm Walker Huggins. I'm 17 and live in Midland, Texas.

Ted Canova: Growing up, life was pretty fun for Walker. He played sports, but what he truly loved more than anything else was the rodeo.

Walker Huggins: I was running the sound so if you go to a rodeo, everything you hear was what I was controlling.

Ted Canova: One thing Walker couldn’t control were the clowns.

Walker Huggins: There's been times where people especially clowns, they’ll go on the mic and they'll just scream to the crowd, and that will pop the breaker.

Ted Canova: Clowns do provide a little humor, though.

Walker Huggins: We hear all their jokes. “If a turtle loses his shell, is he naked or homeless?”

Ted Canova: Let that one sit for a moment. (laugh). Walker wasn’t content running audio at the rodeo, he also spent time leaning to ride.

Walker Huggins: I was practicing at the Odessa College Ranch with Tate Kelly.

Ted Canova: Tate is a college and professional Saddle Bronc Rider.

Walker Huggins: And he was teaching me how to ride bucking horses.

Ted Canova: All that bucking would understandably lead to some sore muscles. But Walker started feeling something else.

Walker Huggins: It started around Christmas of 2020. And I was just feeling a crick in my neck. And I didn't know if it was just the pillows or something like that. And then later in the week, I started getting sick, just feeling nauseous, throwing up, and just not wanting to do anything.

Ted Canova: Walker uncharacteristically just wanted to stay home.

Keri Huggins: I'm Keri Huggins. And I'm Walker's proud mom.

Ted Canova: Keri’s the proud mom of identical twins, Walker and Trevor. Given Walker’s symptoms, she wondered if he was depressed.

Keri Huggins: It was the first Christmas without my dad, the boys are very close with him.

Ted Canova: The holiday blues are one thing. But Walker looked stiff and felt dizzy and nauseous.

Keri Huggins: So we go to the doctor, she does bloodwork, his blood work was perfectly fine.

Walker Huggins: I was still feeling bad, and one night we had dinner in the living room, and I went to walk back to my room, and I just passed out.

Ted Canova: Passed out right there on the hardwood….that was the first time it happened.

Keri Huggins: We heard it, and I ran down the hall and he was already coming to...

Walker Huggins: I woke up on the ground and mom and dad were around me. And I was like, what just happened?

Keri Huggins: And I said, did you trip? And he was just very disoriented.

Ted Canova: More than disoriented, Walker landed against the baseboard and suffered a bloody and busted nose. A week later, he was just chilling out in bed when he froze.

Walker Huggins: We didn't know at the time, but I had a seizure. I couldn't move. I understood my mom and dad, I could hear them talking. And I couldn't talk back.

Keri Huggins: So, I yelled for Wes.

Ted Canova: Wes is Keri’s husband and Walker’s dad.

Keri Huggins: And I said, get in here. And Wes was trying to get him to talk, and I called 911.

Walker Huggins: My speech was slurring;  they couldn't understand me.

Ted Canova: An ambulance rushed them to the hospital, where Walker suffered another seizure.

Walker Huggins: And one of the nurses came in and she was asking me questions like, can you say your name? How old are you? I tried to answer her back, but it was just slurring coming out like I couldn't pronounce it.

Ted Canova: A CT scan revealed heartbreaking news. Walker’s cancer were tumors of very primitive type of cells. And for whatever reason, these types of tumors tend to be much more common in younger people.

Walker Huggins: When I got back in the room, my dad was crying. And the main doctor was in there and he looked at me. He goes, well, Walker, you got two big old tumors in your head, and we're going to get you out of here. And hearing that, my whole mind just went blank.

Keri Huggins: You never, ever think it's going to happen to you or your child. So, I was in shock……And my main goal was keeping Walker calm. It's going to be okay.

Walker Huggins: She has been positive telling me it's going to be okay.

Ted Canova: As soon as they saw the tumors, they left Midland on a four-hour ambulance ride to Cook  Children’s Medical Center in Fort Worth.

Keri Huggins: It was very important because had we not quickly got out of Midland to Cook, he would have died.

Ted Canova: When they arrived, Walker was taken for an MRI, but his anxiety was rising. So, nurses turned to Keri and Wes.

Walker Huggins: They go back to my parents, and they say, Walker's not calm. We're going to need maybe one of y'all to go in the room with him. And my dad goes, y'all got music, right? And they're like, yeah. Just put on some George Straight and he'll calm down. Sure enough, I calmed down. And all of a sudden, the doctor walks in, my surgeon and the doctor looked down at me, and he said, Walker, you don't know this, but you're the talk of the hospital.

Ted Canova: The next morning, Walker was prepping for surgery to have the tumors removed.

Walker Huggins: And I was meeting the anesthesiologist. And he was telling me what all they're going to do. And the doctor was talking to me and my mom and dad. And he told my parents he's more than likely not going to be the same after this.

Keri Huggins: I felt like someone punched me in the stomach. Because then we're going, how is he not going to be the same? Is he going to come out of this and not remember us? Is he going to come out of this and not be able to walk and not be able to talk? We didn't know.

Walker Huggins: When the doctor got done talking to us about surgery, he said, now I'm going to pray with y’all. And being a faithful kid, trusting God and everything, that meant a lot to me, and I looked over at my mom and I said, I'm awkwardly calm right now.

Ted Canova: The first eight-hour surgery removed a tumor the size of a baseball that was intertwined in Walker’s brain.

Walker Huggins: The first tumor was on the back of the brain cerebellum.

Ted Canova: The second surgery was about 10 days later.

Walker Huggins: I stayed at the hospital during that time, on the neurosurgery floor. I had physical therapy and occupational therapy.

Ted Canova: Walker was showing no symptoms….no pain, no headaches, no loss of vision. But HIS cancer carries a high predisposition to spread through the fluid of the brain and could get to other parts of his brain and spine. So, they added an innovative treatment called proton radiation therapy.

Dr. Mangona: I am Dr. Victor Mangona, Radiation Oncologist at Texas Center for Proton Therapy.

Ted Canova: The center is part of Texas Oncology. Dr. Mangona met with Walker and his parents 10 days after the last surgery.

Dr. Mangona: I find that children in general actually are incredibly resilient as patients, certainly these diagnoses can be devastating. And different people, different children, different parents respond to this differently. I remember the first time I met him and his family. They were just incredibly polite, nice, and thankful.

Ted Canova: Thankful, yes, but how could proton radiation therapy be used on Walker?

Dr. Mangona: In Walker's case, radiation therapy was necessary for treating all of the microscopic tumor cells that we can't see elsewhere in the brain and spinal cord, but also at those two areas of the surgery, there's a higher likelihood of more tumors still being there, even if the surgery was able to remove everything that was visible.

Ted Canova: So every day for six weeks, Walker went to the proton center for treatment. He laid on a table in the treatment room for 45 minutes with a mesh mask over his face to keep his head still. Proton therapy targeted the tumors without Walker feeling pain.

Dr. Mangona: Proton radiation therapy is a type of radiation therapy, where we use particles as our energy beam as opposed to X rays. I think of it like, protons are very tiny grenades, you throw them a certain distance, and they will land there and release all of their energy, right where you want it to be. A bullet is like an x ray. And that will just go all the way through, causing damage on the way in and on the way out.

Ted Canova: Walker also had a third tumor on his spine, and it too was removed using proton radiation therapy.

Keri Huggins: Had it not been for proton radiation, we would have gone with standard radiation. The risk of the radiation therapy to the brain were just far too high. He could have lost his vision. He could have damaged the good tissue on his brain that affects motor skills, everything.

Ted Canova: Not every area has such an innovative proton therapy center like this, a lifesaving fact not lost on Keri.

Keri Huggins: Texas Center for Proton Therapy is amazing. The lady at the registration, the doctor, his nurse, all of the people in the different rooms that Walker would have appointments with, they were great with him. We made friends there.

Dr. Mangona: There is just an unbelievable amount of people who are directly and indirectly involved in his care, it takes a huge team of people to get somebody like Walker through all this treatment here.

Ted Canova: Through it all, Walker went through as substantial a cancer treatment that anyone could go through.

Walker Huggins: If I didn't trust God, and trust in His plan, I wouldn't be where I am today. He is the biggest part of how I'm feeling today. My attitude and everything.

Keri Huggins: Walker has taught me to rely on my faith. from day one that he was diagnosed, he asked the doctors, why do people get this type of cancer? And they don't know why kids get cancer. And later that night, he said, I think God gave me this to bring more people closer to him. That's powerful. Coming from a 16-year-old.

Ted Canova: Walker is doing great. He has no side effects from his treatments, takes an oral chemotherapy pill, and may actually graduate early from high school. So, it’s on to the rodeo circuit where he has a pretty busy schedule.

Ted Canova: Up next, an artist with a family history of cancer, learns she has colon cancer.

Nell Nations: For me, it’s always been a hobby and also a kind of therapy, so having that opportunity to get that horse to my garage and try to create something from that was a daunting task, it’s a reminder to always be hopeful., create was daunting, reminder to be hopeful."

Ted Canova: The artistic and inspiring story in our next episode when we meet Nell. We hope you enjoyed Right Here, a podcast from Texas Oncology who knows that family and friends are a huge part of cancer treatment, so being right here makes a difference. For expert cancer care, contact Texas Oncology.com.