Battling To Beat Brain Cancer

It started several months ago with the headaches — blinding assaults from out of the blue that would leave Katherine Brown incapacitated, unable to work or even move, hypersensitive to light and sound.

She thought she was having migraines. Her primary care physician believed she might be struggling with

depression or anxiety, so he gave her sample packets of anti-anxiety medication and antidepressants because she had little money and no insurance. He never referred her to a neurologist.

Nothing touched the pain.

It wasn’t until one horrible night, when her increasingly odd behavior panicked her parents, that Brown was rushed to University Hospital, where doctors finally did a scan of her head. They discovered a cancerous brain tumor the size of a grapefruit — not the largest tumor that neurosurgeon Dr. David Jimenez had ever seen, “but way up there,” he said.

A malignant tumor such as the one crowding Brown’s brain would have meant an automatic death sentence years ago — and in some less-advanced health care centers, it still would. But her story illustrates what cutting-edge medicine can do in the face of horrific disease and the strides researchers are making in battling malignant brain tumors.

If the pathology report of her brain tumor reveals it to be of a certain type, Brown may be in line to receive an experimental vaccine that might prevent it from growing back.

Either way, she’s determined to defy any dim prognosis.

“This cancer is going to have to put up a fight, because I have no intention of giving up,” said Brown, 37, the mother of 7-year-old twins. “Knowing that there was a really high chance for me not to survive the surgery, I really value life a lot more now. I’m going to fight.”

Erratic behavior

Brown lives in a detached cottage behind her parent’s modest brick home on 2 1/2 acres near Castroville. She’s a well-known artist and designer, creating collages, assemblages, jewelry and other art with found objects. Before she got sick, she scoured antique and estate sales and traveled to Mexico twice a month to buy objets d’art — small, artistic pieces — for her creations and folk art to sell on her thriving online business.

She was the president and one of the founding members of the local Craft Mafia, a collective of artists/crafters who come together for networking and support.

Brown is a warm, friendly and funny woman despite withering fatigue related to her surgery and complications. She moved in behind her parents six years ago so they could help care for her children, two lively youngsters named Brendan and Rihan.

On a recent morning about a month after her surgery, she sat at the dining room table with her mother, Melinda Brown, 66, a grandmotherly woman with a silver bun who rides around on a scooter and is prone to folksy sayings such as “Lord a’ mercy.” They struggle with the machine used to infuse the catheter inserted in Katherine Brown’s upper arm with the strong antibiotics she needs to combat spinal meningitis, which she contracted as a consequence of the surgery.

Brown is suffering from swelling because of all the medications she’s taking — nine pills — and her hands shake noticeably.

“I’ve gained 10 pounds in the last five days,” she said dejectedly.

Looking back, she marvels that it took so long for her to accept the fact that she was seriously ill.

First came the headaches. Then she started growing numb and collapsing — episodes that were, in fact, seizures. There was the fateful day when she collapsed in the parking lot of a shopping center. Five people passed her by, staring, as she lay on the ground before she was finally able to get to her feet again.

“It was really embarrassing,” she said.

In her professional life as an artist, she had begun struggling with her responsibilities as president of the Craft Mafia.

“She was supposed to be taking care of business online, and she was just dropping the ball right and left,” said Patti Hinkley, a fellow Craft Mafia member. “A lot of the stuff had to do with memory issues. We didn’t realize there was something wrong with her; we just called it the Katie show. Later, we all felt guilty for talking about her.”

But most troubling was her erratic behavior, which worsened over time. One night, her parents spied her urinating outside by the front porch of her house, clad only in an old cardigan. Another night, she walked into her parent’s home wearing only her underwear.

The final straw happened yet another night, when Brown’s father, Ron Brown, noticed there were no lights on in her house and she wasn’t answering her telephone. He walked to the house with Brendan in tow. They found his mother sitting in a puddle of urine, her hands splashing it, while she stared straight ahead, nonresponsive.

“It scared my son to death,” she said.

Worst kind of tumor

Ron Brown, 68, is a former Air Force drill instructor and training superintendent who once oversaw a 1,000-man squadron. A Lackland AFB physical scientist and doting grandfather, he made a command decision and drove her to the emergency room at University Hospital that night.

“When they showed me the (scan) of her brain tumor, I almost fell on the floor,” he said.

Surgery was scheduled for the next morning, and Dr. Jimenez, chairman of the neurosurgery department, was called in. Jimenez said her tumor arose from star-shaped cells that create the scaffolding for nerve cells in the brain.

A high-grade glioblastoma, it’s the worst, most virulent kind of brain tumor. Brown’s was in her right frontal lobe, and the size of it was compressing other parts of her brain. The size indicated that it could have been there for as long as six months to a year, Jimenez said.

The frontal lobe is considered the “executive center,” Jimenez said, “where all the higher cognitive functions take place. It controls our ability to reason, to be creative, to understand complex thoughts. It’s also the location for inhibition control. So someone who loses both frontal lobes may become like a little kid. They might take their clothes off and run around.”

The five-hour surgery was exceedingly delicate. The tumor was close to large blood vessels, and any misstep on Jimenez’s part could have resulted in Brown suffering a stroke, massive bleeding, paralysis, a whole host of woes.

Jimenez said that when Brown came into the ER she was fidgety and noncommunicative; immediately after the surgery “she was like a completely different person. I expected her to be out of it, and she was cracking jokes. She remembered my name. I went home that night walking on air.”

Scans showed that he was able to remove the entire tumor. The only deficit Brown has today is a slight problem with memory; she sometimes forgets what she’s saying in midsentence. Occupational therapy should help with that. Her medical care is being paid for by Medicaid, although her parents have had to pay for prescriptions not covered, to the tune of more than $1,000 so far.

Brown didn’t even have to lose her hair: Jimenez, taking tips from his wife, a plastic surgeon, does brain surgery without shaving his patient’s scalps.

She’s lucky in another way, Jimenez said: University Hospital boasts an “M.D. Anderson-type” multidisciplinary program in which all the various professionals who will take care of Brown as she continues with her course of treatment — chemotherapy and radiation — work as a team.

And the Cancer Research and Treatment Center, or CTRC, which the UT Health Science Center at San Antonio owns, holds the presitigious NCI (National Cancer Institute) designation, meaning Brown will get state-of-the-art care. This includes radiation with a new, one-of-a-kind-for-San Antonio radiation machine that delivers high doses.

Part of the cutting-edge research involves an ongoing second-phase trial of a vaccine for tumors that have a mutation for something called a growth factor receptor.

The vaccine “could double the length of her survival,” Jimenez said.

Precarious futures

Brown, whose grandmother died of a brain tumor, said she’s not afraid of dying.

“I’m just not ready, if that makes any sense,” she said. “It doesn’t scare me anymore, but I am concerned about my children. More than anything, I think it’s important to look ahead, just in case.”

She knows her parents are growing older and might struggle to keep up with her two growing kids, who have been given just the vague outlines of what’s happening to their mother. The father of her twins, Joe Carty, is a Kerrville man who has defied odds by living well beyond his own prognosis after being diagnosed with stage-four liver cancer and colon cancer.

Brown said Carty is a loving, involved father, but his future is precarious as well. So she has talked to his brother and sister, who live in Ireland and have grown kids, about whether they’d be willing to raise Brendan and Rihan, if it should come to that.

But now, she’s focused on the present and overcoming the odds.

“They told Joe he only had three to six months, and that was three years ago,” she said. “There are miracles.” ~

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