Ashley Bissel is staring at the ceiling, trying to think of butterflies.
She lies on a platform, her head held motionless by a white mesh mask that looks like a prop from a low-budget sci-fi movie. Technicians in white coats circulate around a sparse room and prepare equipment, as her mother cradles her hand.
Then the time comes for everyone to leave — everyone except Ashley, who raises her fist. In it is a novelty foam brain, which she gives a pronounced squeeze. The symbolism is lost on no one.
“It’s my stress reliever,” the 23-year-old said of the keychain-size item, which she carries religiously in her book bag.
Her mind moves back to the butterflies. It’s small comfort, but for the characteristically buoyant graduate of Dakota Ridge High School, it works. A trip to the Butterfly Pavilion will follow her treatment.
“They’re my symbol of hope,” she said. “Every time I’m sad, I see one.”
A thin red beam makes a precise line down her body, ensuring she is accurately positioned. Her name is displayed on the device’s two LCD screens, along with a photo, in which she is smiling.
“OK, you’re doing great,” a technician, hidden behind a thick wall of lead, calls out over the intercom. “It’s only 121 seconds.”
For two minutes, the TomoTherapy device makes a rough CT scan of her brain, identifying target areas that are blasted shortly afterward with a stream of gamma radiation.
DeVon, Ashley’s mother, walks away from the array of computer screens at the technician’s desk, lowering her head and covering her eyes. It’s the second of 28 daily treatments.
The device stops, and a technician opens the thick door and removes the mask securing Ashley to the platform. She sits up, her face red in a crosshatch pattern.
“Yesterday was a rough one,” she said of the previous day’s radiation treatment. “I was just trying not to think about it.”
Her headaches started a year ago. A doctor didn’t think much of the symptoms, so Ashley sought a second opinion. Then a third.
Physicians all had the same thing to say: a diagnosis of stress-induced migraines, blamed largely on Ashley’s dedication to textbooks and exams at the University of Northern Colorado, from which she recently graduated at the top of her class.
“Then they started getting worse, and I started losing vision,” she said. “It turned out not to be a headache.”
In May, the day before her first class at nursing school, an MRI scan revealed a 6-centimeter mass growing in her brain. Ten days later she awoke from an operation. The malignant tumor had been removed, and though her vision returned and headaches diminished, she could rest for only a few weeks before embarking on an exhausting regimen of chemotherapy and radiation.
The cause of her progressively worsening pains was an astroblastoma, a rare form of brain cancer that has been diagnosed only about 12 times in the past decade.
Ashley’s oral chemotherapy course will last 45 days, after which she will take a month-long break before going on a stronger dose for six months to a year. An MRI at the end of her radiation treatments will be used to gauge how effective the therapy was and if any of the small tumor fragments unable to be removed surgically remain.
“It’s kind of hard because I’m so young, and the symptoms were just so benign. It was just headaches,” said Ashley, who in spite of her diagnosis does not blame any doctors for missing something. “It’s hard to tell how long it’s actually been growing.”
She knows her rare condition will yield insightful data to researchers, which could eventually help lead to new treatments and diagnostic tools. Ideally, though, any progress toward earlier detection, especially with a cancer that primarily strikes young people, would be welcome.
“The worst part of this whole thing is you don’t know the statistics; you don’t know anything. … It’s all just kind of a shot in the dark,” she said. “I’m going to be one for the books.”
Support from family and friends has made her treatment bearable, she said. Not surprising is that Ashley, voted one year as Dakota Ridge’s homecoming queen, has no shortage of well-wishers.
Her parents are covering the insurance deductibles, but the growing stack of medical bills is daunting, given their modest income.
“Her job is to get well. Our job is to worry about the rest,” said DeVon, an administrative assistant whose employer-sponsored medical plan covers Ashley. “Everything’s pretty tight. … Thank goodness for insurance.”
In August, Ashley plans to move out of her parents’ South Jeffco home and back to Greeley, where she’ll begin nursing school, albeit later than she anticipated.
She’ll also be living closer to her fiancé, Aaron Berens, her boyfriend since high school. The couple were noted in their yearbook as most likely to get married.
“At first I felt like the world was over,” she said of her diagnosis. “One minute life was fine, and then the next minute everything was … confusing.”
But her life isn’t going to revolve entirely around treatment, she said. Time is better invested in the things she loves than worrying about her next round of radiation.
“It’s kind of a scary place to be. … But I’ve had so much support,” she said.
And with the inevitable familiarity of repetition, chemotherapy and radiation may come to resemble monotonous, though unpleasant, daily tasks.
“Each time, it will get a tiny bit easier,” family friend Kris Jensen said as they left her second appointment.
For Ashley, there is some comfort in that.
“I hope so,” she said.
To help with Ashley’s medical bills …
An account has been opened to benefit Ashley Bissel’s treatment. Donations to help offset her medical expenses can be made at any FirstBank location.
Editor’s note: The Columbine Courier is following Ashley Bissel’s journey through her treatment for astroblastoma, a very rare form of brain cancer. This story is the first in an ongoing series.