June 14, 2017
Surviving a skull base tumor
BY John Drake
In March 2014, I tried to connect a boat trailer to my minivan, ploughed head-first into the closed tailgate and really hurt my neck.
An X-ray showed I hadn’t broken my neck, but the doctors saw something near the back of my brain, at the base of my skull. A CT scan confirmed it was a tumor. The doctor was elated because he found it before I had any symptoms. I had mixed emotions, and it took a while to process the news.
After many tests and several weeks in the hospital, we knew I had a tumor in my skull, at the base of my brain on the right side. But even after two needle biopsies, the doctors couldn’t diagnose the type of tumor or decide how to treat it.
Within 14 months, I’d begun experiencing major symptoms -- constant pain in my neck and head, weak legs, and an inability to walk or rise from a chair without assistance. Even a gentle cough could cause me to pass out if I didn’t lie down immediately. One day, the symptoms didn’t go away after I coughed. I ended up having emergency surgery to install a ventriculoperitoneal shunt to relieve pressure from the cerebrospinal fluid buildup in my brain caused by the tumor.
Afterwards, I finally received a diagnosis: clear cell chondrosarcoma. The neurosurgeon stated that the best he could do was to surgically remove some of the tumor and move me to the palliative ward.
On the road to skull base tumor treatment at MD Anderson
A friend who happened to be a retired physician researched treatments and facilities for me. Within two weeks, we were driving from Canada to MD Anderson in Houston, Texas, to meet a highly skilled skull base neurosurgeon named Franco DeMonte, M.D.
But before we made it to Houston, things went horribly wrong. In Salina, Kansas, I started vomiting every 20 minutes, and my head felt like it would split open. It turns out my medications had caused bleeding in my brain.
When we finally arrived in Houston on Oct. 20, 2015, I was admitted to MD Anderson’s Emergency Center.
A new diagnosis and skull base surgery
After DeMonte reviewed my medical data and MD Anderson’s pathologists reviewed my biopsies, they gave me a new diagnosis: small cell osteosarcoma, bone cancer in the base of my skull.
We felt relieved when we heard those amazing words: “This looks curable.”
By early November, I’d recovered from the debilitating brain bleed, moved from the ICU to the neuro floor, and was ready for surgery. Five very talented MD Anderson surgeons and their respective medical teams spent 13.5 hours removing a very large tumor from the base of my skull and my cerebellum and brainstem.
They separated the tumor from several cranial nerves, around which it had grown without any negative impact on the nerves themselves. It was a very major and technically difficult operation, performed by dedicated physicians under very difficult circumstances. I will likely never realize the full severity and difficulty of the surgery. But I do know one thing: God was in control from the beginning, and oversaw every step that was taken.
Safely through the flames
In December 2015, after 46 days in the hospital at MD Anderson, we made the five-day, 2,500-mile drive back home to Canada. In January 2016, I began chemotherapy in Seattle, Washington – just 2.5 hours from home – overseen by an oncologist who had completed a fellowship at MD Anderson. The chemotherapy successfully shrank the small piece of tumor that remained in the petrous apex region of my skull base.
When I look back on my journey, I can’t help but feel gratitude for making it safely through the flames. I’m now back at work, and I just had my chemotherapy port removed. I have CT scans and MRIs every three months and return to MD Anderson periodically for follow-up care. Everything is clear, and all the news I get is good news!
Request an appointment at MD Anderson online or by calling 1-877-632-6789.
TopicsOsteosarcoma Skull Base Tumors Symptoms Pain Second Opinion Treatment Bone Cancer Sarcoma Surgery Chemotherapy
We felt relieved when we heard those amazing words: 'This looks curable.'