Charlie Beecher's family described the first two years of his life as joyously normal until Charlie developed belly pain. When they found out it was cancer, the Beechers brought Charlie to the Francis H. Burr Proton Therapy Center, which helped Charlie return to his normal, happy childhood.

A grinning toddler comes down a slide.
Charlie Beecher, shortly after he started proton beam treatment.

When Anne and Shayne Beecher had their son, Charlie, the first year of his life was a parent’s dream: full of joy and completely normal. As Charlie grew, he became known for his bright smile and adoration for his big brother, Max.

In late 2009, however, Charlie suddenly started to drop to his knees and cry from belly pain. In the middle of the night, Anne and Shayne took Charlie to the emergency room where doctors found a mass in his pelvis that was making him unable to urinate. The Beechers were then referred to a pediatric urologist at Penn State Hershey Medical Center, where they received news that no parent wants to hear: their son had cancer.

“Those four words forever changed our lives,” said Anne. “We went from symptom presentation to the start of treatment in less than two weeks.”

Charlie was just 16 months old when he was diagnosed with embryonal rhabdomyosarcoma of the prostate, a type of childhood cancer that affects soft tissue. On December 15, 2009, Charlie began 42 weeks of chemotherapy to shrink the tumor. After several weeks, Charlie’s doctors were pleased with his progress, but he still needed treatment to shrink what remained of his tumor. His doctors felt that surgery was too risky, so radiation was the best next step.

“I remember the day Charlie’s doctor called to talk about proton beam radiation therapy,” said Anne. “Charlie’s doctors were concerned about standard photon radiation because of his young age. I’d never heard of proton beam therapy, but it sounded like a promising option.”

The closest facility to offer proton beam therapy was Mass General for Children (MGfC), more than 600 miles from the Beecher’s home in York, Penn. In May 2010, Anne, Charlie and Anne’s mother traveled to Boston so Charlie could begin six weeks of proton beam therapy at the Francis H. Burr Proton Therapy Center at Massachusetts General Hospital. Shayne, Max, and Anne’s father stayed behind in Pennsylvania and visited Boston on the weekends.

Proton beam therapy is a form of targeted radiation therapy designed to shrink tumor cells while helping to preserve more surrounding healthy tissue. “This is especially important for children, who are more vulnerable to the effects of radiation because their brains and bodies are still growing,” said Torunn Yock, MD, director of Pediatric Radiation Oncology at MGfC. “By preserving more surrounding healthy tissue, there are fewer long-term effects on growth and development.”

Moving into their new “home,” a rented apartment across the street from the hospital, involved a great deal of planning, but the Beechers quickly settled into their new routine.

“I remember feeling terrified on the first day of treatment. It was incredibly difficult to carry my son into the gantry, watch him fall asleep with anesthesia and walk out of the room without him,” said Anne. “As strange as it might sound, it never got easy, but it eventually got easier.”

When Charlie came in for treatment, Rachel Bolton, RN, an oncology nurse in Pediatric Radiation Oncology at MGfC, made sure Charlie was comfortable and felt safe. His social worker organized meetings with families whose children were undergoing or had received proton beam therapy. Yock answered all of Anne’s questions with competence, patience and confidence.

“Charlie was never hesitant or scared. He even looked forward to coming to the hospital. I marveled at his strength and followed his lead,” said Anne. “As a parent, it’s incredibly reassuring to have such wise and caring individuals as part of his care team.”

Charlie Beecher, looking healthy.
Charlie, now 7, is back to being a normal, happy kid.

Since Charlie’s last proton beam treatment, he’s received consultations from specialists throughout MGfC, including Rafael V. Pieretti, MD, a pediatric urologist. “During our initial visit with Dr. Pieretti in 2012, two years after Charlie’s treatment ended, he asked if we could return the following day so he could fully read Charlie’s medical record,” said Anne. “He insisted on being thorough and providing the best care. I’ve never seen a doctor take so much time to understand a patient and so willingly offer his insight.”

Five years after Charlie’s last proton beam treatment, Charlie is considered cured. His mother never doubted that MGfC was the right place for her son’s care. “Knowing that your child’s medical team consists of doctors and nurses like those at MGfC has instilled in me the confidence in knowing that my son was getting and still gets the best care possible,” said Anne. “The friendships and expertise remain so valuable to me.”

Today, Charlie is a happy, healthy 7-year-old who loves Star Wars®, Legos® and baseball. The Beecher’s experience with MGfC and Mass General was so positive, in fact, that Charlie and his brother, Max, are now Red Sox fans and say they want to live in Boston someday.

“Our family’s experience at MGfC was outstanding. The high standard of care was evident in every interaction and continues to be when we bring Charlie back once a year for follow-up appointments,” said Anne. “We feel so fortunate that MGfC was involved in Charlie’s care. I truly believe his care team saved his life.”