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Eldon clone trooper defeats dark side brain tumor

Hand-painted masks help children feel empowered during cancer therapy April 1, 2018 at 5:04 a.m. | Updated April 2, 2018 at 11:52 a.m.
<p>Submitted photo</p><p>Evan Cornett, an 8-year-old boy from Eldon, stands with stormtroopers in his “Star Wars” clone trooper costume and proton beam therapy mask painted like a clone trooper helmet.</p>

Evan Cornett was a double agent, secretly working against the dark side under the guise of a "Star Wars" clone trooper.
The 8-year-old Eldon resident donned his specialized helmet before beginning the mission: proton beam therapy. Two stormtroopers escorted Evan to the base of operations in St. Louis Children's Hospital, where he received treatment for a brain tumor in the back of his head.
After the 30-day therapy, mission control briefed Evan. The little Death Star in his skull was no more. The brave boy had overcome the dark side of his health and is cancer-free with no signs of the tumor returning.
Evan was the first patient to receive a custom-painted mask, worn over his face during proton beam therapy to help pinpoint where the radiation hits his tumor. Hannah Heimos, a child life therapist at St. Louis Children's Hospital, paints radiation masks as favorite fictional characters to make the children feel powerful and comfortable during their treatments.
"I help kids understand exactly what's happening to them and also try to help them have fun with it," Heimos said. Children undergoing proton therapy are fitted for their masks, which starts as a warm piece of plastic that is molded to their face.
"I tell them it will feel like warm spaghetti noodles," she said. "This is the mask (the doctors) put marks on to help line (the child's head) up and put it in the right position every day for their treatment."
This process can be hard on the children because the mask is tight on their faces, can be difficult to breath through and causes some patients to feel claustrophobic. Heimos said the hand-painted masks help put the children at ease throughout this process.
"I had read a little bit about it and how it can help kids just feel more empowered and take on this new identity, whether it's a superhero or a minion or a stormtrooper, just to help them have more fun and be excited about putting on the mask."
Evan's father, Eric Cornett, said Heimos' efforts helped tremendously.
"That was huge for making it more fun for him. When we went back for some other appointments on Tuesday, he was like, 'Oh, we've got to go stop and see everybody at the hospital.'"
Now, Heimos has received funding to empower more sick children, allowing them to feel like a favorite character of their choice, such as Captain America or a Disney princess.
Cornett said his son's journey to recovery began after Evan started complaining about headaches and frequently became sick to his stomach. His parents couldn't have known that by Nov. 9, their son would be diagnosed with a brain tumor.
The next day, Evan underwent a successful 10-hour surgery to remove the tumor. Then, on Dec. 16, a shunt system had to be installed in his body to help regulate spinal fluid. The youngster remained hospitalized for three weeks as he rehabilitated motor skills on the left side of his body, which were hindered by the surgery.
The hospital can be a scary place for anyone, but especially for inexperienced children. That is why Cornett was glad Heimos was there to help the family feel more comfortable with their situation.
"Hannah showed him what would happen when he had his scan, showed him what the mask was going to look like and how they make it," Cornett said. "They had all kinds of videos and slide shows to show him what the inside of the radiation treatment actually looks like and did tours. Really, it was very easy for us."
As Evan regained his strength in Columbia, he rewatched all of the "Star Wars" movies available, from "The Phantom Menace" to "The Force Awakens." While he was entertained by the galaxy far away, Evan's parents decided to take their son to St. Louis, where proton beam therapy treatments were available to keep the tumor from coming back. It would involve driving back and forth from Eldon to St. Louis for about a month, but the treatment would be more accurate than the X-ray therapy available in Columbia.
Proton beam therapy sounded to Evan like a mission for someone who had high-tech experience with lightsabers and laser blasters, like a "Star Wars" character. Luckily, he had been given a clone trooper costume for Christmas a couple of years ago.
"Evan had been asked what he wanted to do with his mask, and he said he wanted to be a (clone) trooper. And he was wearing his costume and brought the mask in," Cornett said. "I thought it was pretty funny that on Twitter, a lot of the comments on the pictures of him wearing the mask during treatment talked about Order 66 (in "Star Wars") and how the proton therapy was getting the (dark side mind control) microchip out."
Evan was speechless when he saw his stormtrooper escort at the hospital.
"I think he was taken aback by the whole deal because we didn't tell him what we were doing," Cornett said. "He was pretty surprised."
He wasn't phased for long. Before the day was done, he did battle with the dark side minions in a heated Nerf shootout.
By March 2, he was through the therapy and had no signs the tumor would return. Evan just has to return to the hospital for an MRI every three months to make sure things stay that way.
Winning the battle against the forces of the dark side helped give Evan the strength to rejoin his classmates in school after catching up with his course work. Cornett thanked everyone who helped the family with food and gas money during his treatments and gave special appreciation to Eldon South Elementary teacher April Cotten for taking extra time to help Evan keep up with his coursework.
Evan's triumphant return to school was a party fit for the Galactic Senate. Chewbacca was there to welcome Evan back to class, along with his teachers and classmates. Cornett said his son is attending classes regularly and is about caught up to his classmates.
Throughout this adventure, Evan has gained confidence, a new helmet and a newfound appreciation for staff members at the hospital.
"It's not the scary place it was anymore," Cornett said.

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