Astrocytoma survivor: Why I chose MD Anderson for treatment

I believe everything happens for a reason. So, when I was diagnosed with anaplastic astrocytoma — an aggressive type of brain cancer — in February 2017, I figured maybe it was so I could help someone else get through that same thing later on. That’s just the way I look at life.

Whatever I can do to help people, I want to do it. That’s why I’m sharing my story. Because I went from having multiple seizures a day to having virtually no symptoms at all. My cancer has not shown any sign of growth since May 2017. And it’s all due to the treatment I received at MD Anderson.

My brain cancer diagnosis

I started having fainting spells around 1996, when I was in my mid-20s. My doctor thought they were heart-related, so he sent me to a cardiologist. I was diagnosed with syncope, or a temporary loss of consciousness caused by an irregular heartbeat. The cardiologist prescribed a heart medication. That solved the problem for almost 20 years.

Then, about three years ago, I started having trouble with fainting spells again. I never got a headache or anything, but sometimes I’d perceive a certain smell or feel a strange sensation on my skin, like cold cream was being poured over me.

My cardiologist sent me to another specialist for some additional testing. That doctor recommended a pacemaker. I had one installed, but that still didn’t solve the problem. I continued to have fainting episodes, and it took me almost five minutes to recover from each one. I saw a neurologist, who determined that these were actually seizures. He ordered an MRI.

That’s when we discovered I didn’t just have heart problems. I also had brain cancer.

Choosing MD Anderson for my astrocytoma treatment

I got a referral to a neuro-oncologist near my home in northwest Houston. He told me he could remove some of my brain the following Friday, to give the tumor room to grow. But that didn’t sound right to me. I figured there had to be a better option.

I contacted another large hospital system, but they couldn’t fit me in for another two weeks. Then, my dad mentioned my situation to a neighbor, who works at MD Anderson. She urged him to have me call for an appointment. My manager at work told me the same thing.

I called MD Anderson and got an appointment with neurosurgeon Dr. Frederick Lang two days later.

A treatment plan I could actually get behind

The first thing Dr. Lang did was confirm that I had a brain tumor and that it was located in a complex part of the brain called the insula. Then, he consulted with neuro-oncologist Dr. Barbara O’Brien, and together, they figured out the best overall treatment plan.

Dr. Lang recommended surgery, with the goal of removing as much of the tumor as possible, not just making room for it to grow larger. Dr. O’Brien recommended six weeks of daily radiation therapy after the surgery, then a year of chemotherapy.

I felt very confident in Dr. Lang and Dr. O’Brien, so I agreed. The surgery took place on May 23, 2017. It was a special kind of surgery called an awake craniotomy. An anesthesiologist put me to sleep before the start of it, then woke me up during the procedure so that Dr. Lang could ask me questions to map where the speech and language parts of my brain were located.

I don’t recall being awake during the surgery, but Dr. Lang assures me that I was. Even so, he was able to remove 90% of the tumor, without damaging any healthy brain tissue. A few weeks later, the results of the tissue analysis came back: it was anaplastic astrocytoma, an aggressive, fast-spreading brain cancer.

Life after my awake craniotomy

It took me about two years to fully recover from my treatments. For one thing, when I first came out of the surgery, I felt … different. I could hear voices and understand what was being said to me, but my own speech often didn’t make any sense. Also, people could show me pictures of an alligator, and I would recognize what it was, but I couldn’t say the name of the animal out loud. That went on for about two months.

Happily, all of my language ability has now returned to normal. The cancer is almost undetectable on my scans. And my only lingering side effect is fatigue. I can’t ride roller coasters anymore, but I am back to working full-time. And I can still pitch a softball and go bass fishing. So, I feel very blessed. And I thank God for MD Anderson every day.

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