Fiona's Story

A Young Mother's Experience with Brain Cancer

Monday, July 16th started out like any normal Monday. I made Zev his smoothie and coffee. Made sure I packed a note into his lunch box and then I headed off to Baby Garten, a local library program for mothers and their babies, where we sing songs and do a craft. It was a fun morning! I never expected to collapse in my driveway at noon on that hot day. But God is good and I have praised His name, thanking Him that I collapsed in the driveway and was found by a neighbor, rather than collapsing at the wheel while driving.....

I was initially told, after the ER doctor ran some MRI and CT scans, that I had an inoperable brain tumor. World Health Organization (WHO) Grade 3 Anaplastic Astrocytoma Glioma. Grade 4 is the worst type of cancer. This was all within the time span of about a a week and a half. You can imagine my heart. Here I was, a 32 year old mother of a sweet, almost 4 month old boy, wife of an Air Force officer, being told that she has an inoperable brain tumor and that a "good goal" would be to "survive the next 12 months."

I refused to accept this conclusion; this death sentence really! It seemed so hopeless at the time, and yet I saw beauty in the simple things in life. I know this sounds crazy, but our little family is actually grateful for the gift of time that the diagnosis of brain cancer has given us. Gratefulness. Such a special word. So much meaning to it.

We sought a second opinion that following week from the University of Virginia's Dr. Schiff, who was a neuro-oncologist but recommended that surgery was an option! We couldn't believe our ears! We met that afternoon with neurosurgeon Dr. Schaffrey who also agreed with Dr. Schiff. Our local oncologist had highly recommended these doctors so we knew we were in good hands.

We decided to travel to Baltimore a few days later to meet with Dr. Quinones (or Dr. Q as he is fondly known) and seek that third opinion. I was honestly ready to go with Dr. Schaffrey. He was ready to operate on August 14th and seemed confident in his abilities as a neurosurgeon (which you kind of want when someone is operating on your brain!)

So we met with Dr. Q on August 9th. I remember this date because our son turned 4 months old on this day. Dr. Q seemed nice and his team were efficient. I was honestly overwhelmed by how big Johns Hopkins University Hospital was. I come from Sydney, Australia and I had never seen so many medical staff: doctors, nurses, support staff, walking around and talking. Thankfully, the feelings of being overwhelmed have been overcome with feelings of gratitude for all that Johns Hopkins and Dr. Q's team has done for us. We are so grateful.

Dr. Q performed an awake craniotomy on me on August 16th; a month exactly after my collapse. His team were outstanding from day one. From his secretary to his own abilities as a neurosurgeon, he really is an amazing man with an incredible story. He reminded me of my dad, who comes from Uruguay. Maybe that's why I went with him. Maybe it's because he spoke Spanish like me and he spent time and effort to preserve my language skills. He ordered a Functional MRI with Dr. Pillai a week before the surgery, which was fascinating, if it wasn't me having brain surgery! But you know, I never felt hopeless with Dr. Q. On the contrary, I felt a sense of peace and calm and hope.

Zev and I went to so many doctors appointments and met with so many doctors and medical staff. My parents from Australia came to visit us, which worked out well actually and they were a help with our baby boy. The circumstances under which they visited were not ideal, but it was nice to have the extra help and to catch up.

I firmly believe in the power of prayer and of Jesus Christ in my life. People I don't even know have prayed for me. Around the world even! One of the many good things about the military life is that we get to live in cool places around the world. We just came back to the States last August from Germany, where we did a 3 year tour. We traveled so much there! Zev and I met in Australia, where he was stationed as an exchange officer and I was a young lieutenant (the term is actually "Flying Officer") in the Australian Air Force. We met at a masquerade ball, and the rest as they say, is history. Zev has been amazing during this entire experience. Truly amazing. They say you can test a man's mettle during the tough times and well these have been tough times. But we have grown closer in ways that can only be attributed to God and His glory. God is so good!

So here we are, a month post surgery. About two weeks post surgery, we traveled to Baltimore for Dr. Q's staff to take out my staples. I was actually worried that it would hurt, but of course it didn't! So many people are in awe that I underwent an awake craniotomy, but I tell them that I am not a hero or anyone special. And besides, God was there with me during the entire procedure.

Apparently, during my awake craniotomy I spoke of my three loves: Zev, Zachary and Venice. Funny that I have never taken a gondola ride in Venice. You know what, now I can take Zev and Zachary to Venice and we can take that gondola ride together. Life is so precious. Enjoy each day and give thanks while you can. I give thanks every day and take pleasure in the simple things in life. Like sitting in the sun with our son.

We are planning a trip back to Australia in the winter (summer in Australia!!) We can't wait to see everyone and introduce Zachary to the family. We are still waiting to hear what the course of action will be regarding chemotherapy and radiation therapy, but I feel confident in the future. My family and I are so very grateful that Dr. Q was able to take out 60% of the entire tumor.

I say that two months ago, I had no idea that I had brain cancer. Thanks to God and many good doctors, including Dr. Q, I have hope now for the future. I want to make a difference and leave my mark on this world; maybe being part of a cure for brain cancer is part of God's plan for my life!

Edited by Alexandra Larsen