Blake’s Story: Medulloblastoma

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Blake knew he was in the right hands the moment he saw the surgeon’s wrists. Dr. John M. Tew, Blake’s neurosurgeon, was wearing one of Lance Armstrong’s yellow LiveStrong cancer bracelets. So was Blake. Dr. Tew, who was also sporting a Tour de France lanyard, was an avid cyclist. So was Blake.

The two cyclists hit it off immediately. “It was a perfect match,” Blake recalled.

In a story that only gets better, Dr. Tew was able to successfully remove a malignant tumor, four centimeters in diameter, from 18-year-old Blake’s brain. A year later, Blake was cycling again and enrolled as a freshman in college. Although still battling fatigue, he had largely pulled his life back together. Deeply religious, he also found himself facing his future with a new appreciation for his life, his abilities, and the family and friends who surrounded him. And in the years since, he has evolved into a global humanitarian, with trips abroad to underserved areas. He spent a summer In Cairo, Egypt, living and working in a garbage slum called Mokattam. He also worked with the Sisters of Charity (Mother Theresa’s sisters) in an orphanage, where the sisters called him “the baby whisperer.”

“When you experience something like this, you’re more grateful to be alive, whereas you would have taken it for granted before,” Blake said at the time. “When you’re 18 and healthy and fit, you can feel pretty much invincible. But when you realize, hey, I almost died there, you become a lot more grateful.”

Years later, Blake said that, “Objectively, getting the tumor was a terrible situation. But God has brought the best out of it in giving me a life direction, waking me up to the wisdom that there is more to life than living for what you want to do.”

Today, Blake is a husband and law school graduate, and he is well past the seven-year anniversary of his surgery. While most cancer survivors are considered cured at five years, a survivor of Blake’s type of tumor, a medulloblastoma, is considered cured at seven. A malignancy that arises in the cerebellum, medulloblastoma is rare but accounts for one-fourth of all brain cancers in children. The cerebellum, located in the back of the brain and next to the brain stem, is involved with posture, motor coordination, and balance.

An honors student and a Category 2 cyclist capable of racing at speeds of 28 miles per hour, Blake was living an active, successful life when the tumor began making its presence known.

“I had these headaches that lasted two to four weeks, basically beginning in February 2004,” Blake recalled. “I had them off and on, the worst headaches I’d ever had. Then, the week before we discovered the tumor, I experienced really bad balance. I was standing up and I fell over for no apparent reason. I had double vision in my peripheral vision. They did an MRI and found the tumor.”

Blake, who lived in Dayton, Ohio, was sent the same day to the University of Cincinnati Neuroscience Institute. Radiologists in Dayton recommended that Dr. Tew, a Mayfield Clinic neurosurgeon who had chaired UC’s Department of Neurosurgery from 1982 to 2002, perform the surgery. Blake’s father felt an instant connection: a physician himself, he had trained under Dr. Tew in the late 1970s during his residency in emergency medicine.

“When it turned out that, amazingly, Dr. Tew was available for Blake’s surgery, it was another of those faith-building times for our family,” Blake’s mother said.

The connection between patient and physician was immediate as well. “Dr. Tew is really good at what he does, and he’s very caring on the personal level,” Blake said. “I’ve heard that a lot of prominent surgeons are very caught up in themselves. I don’t see Dr. Tew as being caught up in himself at all.”

The respect was mutual. “Blake is a great young man with enormous courage,” Dr. Tew said. “He comes from a very loving, spiritual family, and he is beloved by all who know him.”

Following a second MRI, Blake was given steroids to reduce hydrocephalus, an abnormal increase of cerebrospinal fluid in the cranial cavity. He went home for two days, then returned for surgery, which was performed August 2 at University Hospital. Before the operation, in a moment Blake’s mother would not forget, Dr. Tew spoke with the family in the waiting room. “When we told him that many people were praying for Blake and him, he took our hands and said, ‘Let’s pray.’ There in the waiting room we prayed together! What a blessing!”

During the surgery Dr. Tew used computer-driven, image-guided technology, a global positioning system that facilitates precise navigation in vulnerable areas of the brain. The computerized system enabled Dr. Tew to track his surgical instruments and the tumor (located in the fourth ventricle in the cerebellum) in three dimensions on a high-resolution screen. Using a high-powered microscope, Dr. Tew performed microsurgery and removed the tumor in its entirety. The tumor was a medulloblastoma, a malignant tumor that arises in the cerebellum, especially in children. The cerebellum, located in the back of the brain and next to the brain stem, is involved with posture, motor coordination, and balance.

The next day, a Tuesday, Blake couldn’t roll over without excruciating pain. But by Friday he was able to get onto his bike, with a little help from his father.

Blake believes that his faith helped carry him through the ordeal. “I always had faith in God, but that faith became much more personal following the surgery,” he said. “The best way I can put it is that it wasn’t that real to me before. I felt I could handle life on my own. I was successful at most everything I did — bike racing, looks, and brains. I felt I didn’t need any help. But after the surgery I couldn’t do anything for myself. I couldn’t feed myself, walk, or write. So I definitely needed a lot more help over these past few months. I’ve grown a lot closer to God because I relied on him more  — I had to because I couldn’t do things on my own. I wouldn’t wish a brain tumor on anyone, and this wasn’t what I would choose. But God used it for the ultimate good.”

Blake’s physical trials have continued since his surgery and the radiation treatments that followed. The radiation treatments impacted his thyroid and caused fatigue, which likely will remain a lifelong companion. Blake needs at least 10 hours of sleep each night.

Blake continues to find strength in God, however, and the setbacks are minor in the face of his determination to pursue a life devoted to faith and justice. “One of God’s callings is to care for the widow, the orphan, and the oppressed,” he said. “What does God require of man? To act justly. I think that encapsulates what I feel, that pursuing justice is the essential mission in life. It is the calling I feel.”

“A lot of people would grow bitter when their dreams are interrupted,” said Blake’s mother, Joan. “But Blake has been able to make the most of a very difficult situation. He has the Grace of God all over him.”

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