Like most people, I was not prepared for a cancer diagnosis. Since my immediate family has no history of cancer and I don’t smoke or drink, I didn’t think I was at risk for cancer.
First step: major surgery
Regardless, there it was on the CT scan: a 3-pound, football-shaped tumor on my left kidney. I listened as the doctor showed me where the cancer had metastasized to my spine in two places, as well as to multiple spots on my lungs. I needed immediate surgery to remove my left kidney and the larger of the two spinal tumors, as well as placement of titanium hardware to stabilize my spine so it would not collapse. A week later I spent nine hours in surgery followed by four days recovering in my local hospital.
My local doctors and hospital did a wonderful job helping me through the first part of my journey, but I knew my next step should be to seek treatment at MD Anderson in Houston. Six weeks after surgery, in a wheelchair and wearing a back brace to stabilize my spine, I met Eric Jonasch, M.D., in MD Anderson’s Genitourinary Cancer Center. He recommended a clinical trial as the best course of treatment for me.
Next up: clinical trial
I spent the next eight months in a clinical trial for nivolumab (now FDA-approved as Opdivo®), a type of immunotherapy that helps the body’s own immune system recognize and fight off cancer cells. The tumors in my lungs shrank significantly. However, the tumor in my spine did not. Dr. Jonasch and his team were concerned about the possibility of spinal cord damage if the remaining spinal tumor started to grow. I was removed from the clinical trial and referred to MD Anderson’s Brain and Spine Center.
A spine surgery choice
I was both relieved and concerned about what was going to happen next. I was pleased to be getting my spine tumor removed, but I wasn’t looking forward to more spinal surgery and the possibility of significant complications or time recovering in a back brace.
These were my thoughts as I met neurosurgeon Claudio Tatsui, M.D., for the first time. When he walked into the room and introduced himself, I instantly liked him. I felt the warmth and care in his smile as well as his handshake. He took his time and thoroughly explained my options. The first was the same surgery I’d had before, but with more titanium to support my spine. The second was a less invasive procedure combining pinpoint laser surgery, called laser interstitial thermal therapy, followed by radiation to target and destroy the tumor – no titanium support required. It was an easy decision. I chose the minimally invasive surgery for my spine tumor.
The morning of my procedure, Dr. Tatsui’s team introduced themselves. I was surprisingly touched when one of them said to me, “You will not be alone in the operating room. We will all be there with you the entire time.” Up to that point, I hadn’t really thought about it, but the truth is, regardless of the incredible support of family and friends, there are parts of this journey where you feel really alone. Surgery is one of those times. It was incredibly reassuring to know I would not be alone.
Quick recovery from spinal laser therapy
I spent the night at MD Anderson and went home the very next day with just two round bandages covering the two small surgical incisions on my back. I was able to walk on my own without pain and without a back brace. A few days later, I went back to MD Anderson for a 45-minute radiation treatment.
I met with Dr. Tatsui on Dec. 31, 2015 to review the results of my nine-month post-surgical MRI scans. He told me my scans looked great with no sign of regrowth of either of my spinal tumors. He was almost as pleased with the good news as I was. It was the best way I could imagine ringing in the new year.