Naperville teen composes ‘Jovial Echoes’ to thank medical staff following brain cancer radiation therapy

Sam Kagan wanted to thank the medical staff who helped him through his radiation therapy for an aggressive form of brain cancer, but bringing them doughnuts or catering a lunch didn’t seem sufficient.

The Naperville teen was seeking something personal that would not only be for the staff but might inspire future patients to remain positive.

What he came up with was “Jovial Echoes,” a musical composition that’s the 16-year-old Naperville Central High School sophomore’s ode to hope.

Although his radiation oncologist knew Sam was musical because the teen mentioned he was in the high school band, Dr. William Hartsell said he enjoyed the surprise he felt when Sam played his song at the Northwestern Medicine Proton Center in Warrenville.

“I don’t think I’ve ever had anyone write a song at the end of treatment celebrating the treatment,” Hartsell said.

Sam was 15 when he was diagnosed with astrocytoma, a tumor or cancer that starts in the brain tissue, the doctor said.

The cancer is graded from one — a slower, less aggressive form — to four, the highest and most aggressive. Sam’s was a three, Hartsell said.

This particular type of tumor affects brain function by growing and either destroying or pushing on the nerve cells, he said.

“When that happens, you can have all sorts of problems. They can range from things like headaches or nausea to even losing function, like losing strength in an arm or leg or the whole side of the body or losing speech,” Hartsell said.

Another symptom is seizures, and Sam was having both those and headaches when the diagnosis was made, he said.

Because Sam is young and his brain still is growing, doctors needed to act quickly to remove the tumor to prevent significant damage to brain function, Hartsell said.

The first step was to remove the tumor through surgery.

However, the problem with surgery alone is doctors can only remove what they can see, he said.

“Typically these kinds of tumors have roots that go out further into the normal brain tissue, and you can’t just keep taking extra brain tissue trying to find out whether you’ve gotten everything or not because that will also cause lots of problems, like loss of neurologic function,” he said.

That’s why Sam received 12 weeks of proton therapy treatment five days a week, the doctor said. Proton therapy is an advanced form of radiation therapy that targets the microscopic amounts of cancer left behind after surgery.

“Because we use proton beams instead of standard X-ray radiation, we can be much more precise in directing the beam, sparing more of the healthy tissue around the cancer,” Hartsell said.

The last step for Sam is roughly 18 months of chemotherapy to rid the body of cancer beyond the general area of the tumor.

Sam, whose passion for music began with piano lessons in kindergarten and grew with his love for the bass trombone, bass guitar and drums, said the positive proton experience has inspired him to consider becoming a radiation oncologist.

“I want to help people who have the same condition as me,” said the teen, who plays trombone with the school’s jazz band in addition to being in the Central high school band.

What stood out for Sam was the doctors’ “professionalism and how much they enjoy their work,” he said.

His hope is “Jovial Echoes” will be played when other patients finish their radiation treatment and ring the celebratory bell, he said.

Hartsell said Sam’s musical gift exemplifies everything doctors hope to accomplish with proton therapy.

“We hope that by using the protons, we spare the normal brain functions during treatment so he can be as normal of a teenager as possible, and then a normal adult. Our goal is to keep him composing into the future,” he said.

Sam’s mother, Jackie Kagan, said that while her son is an average 16-year-old boy, she’s been blown away by his outlook and the maturity and strength with which he’s handled the cancer diagnosis.

“I think that he’s been the most confident of anybody that this wasn’t going to get him,” Kagan said.

“He’s called himself a phoenix, and I do agree with him. He said I’m going to keep rising up. This is not going to get me, and he believes it.”