I was a just a young, 20-year-old in college student when the symptoms began. In early November 2005, I started having bad headaches and dizzy spells, and my ears became sensitive to sound. My local physician ordered an MRI and EKG.
On Dec. 16, I met with a neurologist to get the results. He told me I had a brain tumor and would need surgery to remove it. Later that afternoon, I met with the surgeon. He explained everything and didn’t seem worried. We scheduled a follow-up appointment for the next week.
But just a few days later, I had a grand mal seizure and went to the ER. Once I was stable enough, I was flown by Life Flight to a larger hospital. Sadly, I wasn't awake – I'm sure the helicopter ride would’ve been fun!
Brain tumor diagnosis and a second opinion
I had my first brain tumor surgery the next week. I was diagnosed with oligodendroglioma, a type of brain cancer. The first oncologist I saw told me I only had two to five years to live. I was so aggravated. I was 20, and my life hadn't even started! I was in denial, so we went to MD Anderson for a second opinion. During my first appointment, I learned that I actually had a different type of brain tumor -- anaplastic astrocytoma.
I completed six weeks of radiation therapy, followed by a new type of chemotherapy called Temodar®, which is now commonly prescribed for brain tumors. I started taking the Temodar® pills once a month for five days at a time in May 2006. I was sick the whole year. At least my hair grew back! In May 2007, I finished chemo and was officially in remission.
After that, I completed an associate's degree in 2008, married my amazing husband, Tim, and started a full-time job.
Staying positive after brain tumor recurrence
But during a follow-up appointment in March 2014, my oncologist noticed a new spot on my brain MRI. That was not the result I was looking for after seven years in remission. But I had to think positive and remember: I beat it once. I can do it again.
In April 2014, neurosurgeon Ganesh Rao, M.D., performed my second brain surgery. The surgical biopsy results showed the cancer had progressed to grade IV. I was then diagnosed with glioblastoma, the most aggressive form of brain cancer. I started proton therapy for five weeks, along with a year of chemotherapy.
After 11 months, an MRI showed a new spot on my brain. I was so disappointed. I thought, “Was the chemotherapy working? Will any kind cure me?”
Immunotherapy clinical trial for glioblastoma
That’s when my neuro-oncologist, Barbara O'Brien, M.D., told me about a clinical trial for pembrolizumab, an immunotherapy treatment that had been used for melanoma and was being tested for glioblastoma. I qualified for the clinical trial and started receiving the immunotherapy via IV in June 2015.
After I’d received two doses of the immunotherapy, Dr. Rao removed the tumor so my doctors could study how my tumor responded. I told Dr. Rao before my surgery that I don't want to see him again – three brain surgeries will be enough!
Since then, I have continued to receive the immunotherapy once every three weeks. If everything continues going well, I will be done with the clinical trial at the end of May. I anxiously await every MRI and am so excited when I hear great results. I am truly blessed to have my family and friends helping me. I continue praying this treatment is beating the cancer, and I hope this medicine will be the cure for brain tumors.
I want other patients to know how important it is to believe that it is not going to ruin your future. You’ve got to believe in yourself and believe that you will beat this cancer. So far, it’s worked for me.
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