From cancer survivor to healthcare provider
Now a nursing assistant, Riley Theis loves showing off her scar from brain tumor surgery.
Vikki Mioduszewski Published: 9/19/2018
St. Johns County resident Riley Theis is an adult now, planning for her future. She doesn’t think much about what happened to her when she was 12. But if she forgets, she’s got a reminder: a fading scar hidden under the hairline, all that remains of the fight of her life.
“I was in sixth grade, and I remember I had headaches every day for four months,” said Theis, now 23. “I would wake up with a headache, eat breakfast, throw up to relieve the pressure in my head and then go to school and be fine until the end of the day. I’d come home with a headache and either sleep the entire evening or try to take something for the pain. We thought the headaches were associated with me getting contacts.”
On Mother’s Day in 2007, Theis and her mom were in Jacksonville shopping. “My mom said, ‘We’re near a hospital. Let’s just pop into the ER,’” recalled Theis. “They did a CT scan and found a mass the size of a golf ball. I was transported to Wolfson Children’s Hospital, which started my journey.”
After being diagnosed with a brain tumor, Theis was scheduled for surgery with UF College of Medicine -- Jacksonville pediatric neurosurgeon Philipp Aldana, MD, now co-medical director of the Stys Neuroscience Institute at Wolfson Children’s.
While she recovered from her nine-hour brain surgery in the Pediatric Intensive Care Unit, her parents were presented with two options: for Theis to have chemo and radiation, or to be enrolled in a study where she would be very closely monitored. “They decided they didn’t want me going through chemo and radiation so I was enrolled into the study,” she said.
Because her parents were positive and calm from the time of diagnosis through treatment, Theis was never scared. In fact, she embraced her experience.
“I love that I had a tumor,” she said. “Not many people can say they had a brain tumor. That’s what makes me special and unique. I love my scar. It’s probably a good five inches and in the shape of an ‘S.’ I say it’s an S for "Survivor." I have always loved showing off my battle wounds.”
Her brain tumor returns
It wasn’t until 2010, when she was a freshman in high school, that an MRI scan that was part of the study she was enrolled in revealed a small spot in Theis’s brain, a recurring tumor.
Dr. Aldana said, “The tumor that returned was about the size of a BB. I was able to remove this with an endoscope. However, because it returned, it was likely that there could be other tumors that would develop. To reduce this risk, I referred Riley for proton radiation therapy, which is safer than conventional photon radiation therapy.”
Following brain surgery with Dr. Aldana to remove the tumor, Theis went through six weeks of targeted radiation therapy at the UF Health Proton Therapy Institute in Jacksonville, and is now cancer-free.
“I feel like I didn’t really have cancer sometimes, and that I had an easy way out,” she said. “Even with radiation treatments, I had no side effects because the dosage was so low. My whole treatment experience was so picture-perfect.”
Childhood experience influences her career choice
Inspired by the caregivers at Wolfson Children’s Hospital, especially Dr. Aldana and neurosurgery nurse practitioner Teresa MacGregor, ARNP, Theis decided to go into health care. “Teresa was the first person I knew of who wasn’t a doctor but still gets to have a say in treatment plans for patients,” she said. “I didn’t necessarily want to be a doctor. She helped shape my thinking of wanting to be a physician assistant (PA) instead.”
Theis has already started her health care career, currently working as a certified nursing assistant in the Critical Care Unit at Baptist Medical Center Beaches. “I thought it would give me great experience overall and I would get to see the doctor’s side and the nursing side,” she said. “It has helped me gain even more of a respect for what nurses do and I have gotten to develop way more skills than what I was even expecting."
Theis is hoping to begin the next part of her journey, and is interviewing with colleges to work toward her goal of being a PA. She homes to focus on pediatrics like her role models.
And she knows she’ll have a great story to share with her future patients. And she can share something else: the surgical scar no one can see unless she shows it to them because Dr. Aldana so carefully hid the incision beneath her hair, over her right ear.
Theis, who would like to work with children with cancer when she becomes a PA, said she wouldn’t mind showing future patients her scar if it gives them hope.
“I feel like it’s a reminder that even though I went through a hard time, one experience does not define my whole life. And if anything, it proves that I have the strength to get through anything. It’s a sign of hope for me, that the tumor was not the end, that I did survive. I would hope by me showing off my scar, kids would find hope that their cancer experience is not what defines them and that there can be life after cancer. You just have to be positive and push through.”
Dr. Aldana said he and his team are impressed by how Theis has turned her experience into a positive. “It is wonderful to see that Riley is a thriving brain tumor survivor who wants to use her experience to help heal others,” he said.