Montana flight nurse used proton therapy to treat an olfactory groove meningioma

Samantha McComas, a 24-year-old nurse from Montana, was diagnosed with a large, 6.5 cm brain tumor on Dec. 19, 2016. Her only symptom at the time was the loss of her sense of smell. When she learned about the tumor — a Grade 1 olfactory groove meningioma — Samantha was understandably terrified and surprised. Worse still, because she couldn’t see the neurosurgeon until after Christmas, she spent the entire holiday wondering if it would be her last.

Samantha and her husband hug for a portrait while surrounded by pine trees and a soft glowing sunset.

Once she met with her neurosurgeon, things went quickly. She had a 15-hour brain surgery to remove the entire tumor, and she was back to work after just six weeks.

“It all happened so fast, there was no time to process anything. It felt like a bad dream,” says Samantha.

Then in 2018 during a routine follow up appointment, something appeared on Samantha’s brain scans. After monitoring it, her doctor determined in 2021 that it was a tumor and immediately referred Samantha to Dr. Carolyn Rutter, a radiation oncologist at the Sletten Cancer Institute in Montana. Surgery was not an option because this new tumor was starting to spread to her sinuses. 

Dr. Rutter recommended proton therapy because of Samantha’s age, and because the tumor was located close to her pituitary gland and optic nerve. Dr. Rutter explained that proton therapy could reduce the amount of radiation delivered to vital healthy tissue, minimizing the risk of radiation-induced secondary cancers

In May 2022, Samantha came for treatment at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center – Proton Therapy under the care of Dr. Lia Halasz, who re-diagnosed Samantha’s tumor and determined that it was Grade II, not Grade I. Grade II meningiomas tend to be more aggressive and likely to come back.

“We discussed different types of radiation therapy options for Samantha, and ultimately decided that proton therapy would spare the most surrounding healthy brain while treating the tumor regrowth as well as areas most at risk for additional tumors to recur,” explains Dr. Halasz. “Samantha did so well throughout her treatment. Every week when we checked in, she had a positive attitude and was keeping active despite being away from home.”

Patients being treated for head and neck cancers at our proton facility have to wear a plastic mesh mask that is expertly fitted to their face in order to ensure that the proton beam is delivered to the exact same spot during treatment. For claustrophobic patients like Samantha, it can be a challenge. In the beginning, she had a minor panic attack every time her treatment mask was put on. But like most patients, she got used to it during the course of her treatment.

“Everyone was so kind and tried to make sure I felt okay,” says Samantha. “In fact, the entire staff at the proton therapy facility was great, so I looked forward to seeing them. Dr. Halasz was wonderful and so knowledgeable. And I think the treatment may have cured me of claustrophobia through exposure therapy. I recently had an MRI, and I didn’t have to take anxiety meds, as I did in the past!”

For her seven-week treatment in Seattle, Samantha, her husband, Aaron, and their dogs Charlie and Chloe stayed in a beautiful Airbnb facing Alki Beach and surrounded by restaurants. They loved the location and all it offered but hadn’t taken city traffic into account when they booked their stay.

Samantha and Aaron stop for a portrait on the wooden pier over the Puget Sound.
Samantha and Aaron loved where they stayed in West Seattle near Alki Beach.

“However, my experience has definitely given me a greater appreciation for life. Life is too short to worry about the little things, like a commute.”

Aaron’s recent deployment took the family to Georgia, and Samantha reports that she feels great. “I had hardly any side effects from proton therapy, except for fatigue and some hair thinning. My hair is growing back — but straight out from my head! There’s nothing I can do to make it lay flat,” she says laughing. She’s positive and hopeful, and most of all, no longer wonders if this will be her last Christmas.

Samantha was a labor and delivery flight nurse in Montana – she was flown by helicopter or jet into rural areas where care wasn’t always available. They brought back any women in labor who had complications or were high-risk, and Samantha cared for them while they were in the air. It’s a niche nursing specialty that isn’t needed everywhere, including Georgia. Now, she continues her nursing work on the ground.

When not at work, Samantha loves to hike, fish, ski and play with the couple’s dogs. She also loves to read and just finished The Snow Child, by Eowyn Ivey, with her book club. She highly recommends this beautifully written and emotional story.

Samantha and Aaron pose for a family portrait on a small wood bridge surrounded by forest and hills.
Samantha and her family.

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