Sandra (Sandy) is a smiling, breathing reminder that hope exists for patients with even the most challenging type of brain tumors. Nine years ago, when Sandy was first told that she had six months to live, she stared back blankly at her doctor. “Who are they talking about?” she remembers thinking. “That isn’t me. I’m not going anywhere. I was determined to live.”
Today, even though she has some lingering cognitive loss, Sandy lives a fulfilling life.
She spends long hours in her garden, goes fishing with her husband, and enjoys the company of her three sons and seven grandchildren. She collects dolls and keeps a tidy, inviting home on the rural outskirts of Cincinnati. “I do feel blessed,” she says.
“Sandy is the kind of patient who inspires us and reminds us never, ever, to give up hope,” says Sandy’s neurosurgeon, Dr. Ronald Warnick, chairman of the Mayfield Clinic and Director of the University of Cincinnati (UC) Brain Tumor Center. “And as we continue our quest to develop new and better treatments for brain tumors, we fully expect that more patients will enjoy the longevity and quality of life that Sandy is experiencing.”
Sandy was working in the meat department of the supermarket where she had been employed for 25 years when her headaches began. It was December 1998.
“I had this pounding in my head,” she remembers. “When I stood up, my head would pound. I’d sit down and the pain would go away. Then I’d stand up again and it would start back up. You try to ignore things and think, what could it be? I thought it was being caused by the medication that I was taking for high blood pressure.”
Sandy’s primary doctor thought so too, even after her repeated complaints.
But one morning in April 1999, after waking up with double vision, she called a friend who was a registered nurse. The friend advised her to go to the hospital at once. An emergency room physician at her community hospital examined her and would not let her leave.
Brain scans revealed a tumor, and Sandy underwent surgery the next day. Her tumor was diagnosed as a malignant glioma, a tumor that is difficult to treat. The surgery was followed by 33 radiation treatments and chemotherapy. When the tumor grew back six months later, Sandy’s surgeon referred her to Dr. Warnick of the Mayfield Clinic.
Dr. Warnick approached the problem of Sandy’s tumor regrowth with a different strategy. Instead of opening her skull and removing the tumor surgically, he chose to eradicate it with LEXAR radiosurgery, a technology in which the tumor is targeted with precisely aimed beams of radiation. In essence, it was surgery without a knife.
The radiosurgery took place at the UC Barrett Cancer Center at University Hospital. Dr. Warnick and Dr. John Breneman, a radiation oncologist at the UC Neuroscience Institute, used a high dose of highly focused beams of radiation to treat the recurrent tumor while sparing the normal brain. The radiation successfully treated the tumor, but scar tissue developed and negatively affected the function of the surrounding healthy tissue. To reverse that damage, Dr. Warnick followed up the radiation treatment by prescribing steroids and hyperbaric oxygen (HBOT) therapy
During the HBOT therapy, Sandy spent multiple one-hour sessions in a pressurized compartment that resembles a tanning bed but is filled with 100 percent pure oxygen at 2.5 times atmospheric pressue. This enabled her bloodstream to deliver higher amounts of oxygen to her brain tissue to promote healing.
“I had 72 treatments,” Sandy says. “I went every day except the weekend. The first few times it was scary, because you are enclosed. But you can watch TV or a movie while you are in there.”
Months later, Sandy began experiencing headaches again, and Dr. Warnick feared that her cancer had returned. This time Dr. Warnick performed traditional surgery, expecting to find tumor regrowth. His plan was to remove the tumor and then implant radiation seeds in the tumor cavity. To everyone’s joy, he found only scar tissue, which he carefully removed. There was no sign of glioma, and Dr. Warnick did not implant any of the radiation seeds.
It would be untrue to say that Sandy’s life is perfect, or to minimize the losses suffered in her battle against brain cancer. She gave up her job at the supermarket, and her inability to read saddens her.
“I can see the words, but I can’t read them,” Sandy says. “It’s not blurry or anything; I just can’t read.”
She gave up painting because the activity is no longer enjoyable to her. And she is self-conscious about her frequent inability to find the word she is looking for in conversation.
But she relishes time spent with family and in the garden. “I like to be outside,” she says. “In the summer, I have a lot of flowers. I have tulips, perennials. I like whatever’s pretty, whatever is blooming.”
But no perennial is as beautiful, or as enduring, as her marriage. Her husband, Bill, whom she met in junior high, supported her through every aspect of her diagnosis and treatment. “We’ve been together for 40 years,” Sandy said. “We’re like best friends and lovers.”
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Hope Story Disclaimer – This story describes an individual patient’s experience. Because every person is unique, individual patients may respond to treatment in different ways. Outcomes are influenced by many factors and may vary from patient to patient.