When you’re battling brain cancer, new treatment options mean hope – hope for more time with loved ones, a better quality of life and, ultimately, a cure. That’s the case for Phil O., a father and middle school math teacher from Scotch Plains, New Jersey, who has been determined to get the best treatment possible since he was suddenly diagnosed with glioblastoma.
“I heard the term ‘brain tumor’ a thousand times throughout my life but never knew much about them before I was diagnosed,” Phil explains. “Thankfully, I was at Morristown Medical Center where I had access to a full team of brain tumor experts.”
Several weeks prior to his diagnosis, Phil began experiencing a distinct tingling sensation throughout his body multiple times a day. He thought it might be stress or anxiety, but when he started forgetting the names of people he worked with closely for years, he decided to get checked out by his primary care physician. Phil was sent to urgent care and then transferred to Morristown Medical Center, part of Atlantic Health System, where they could run more comprehensive tests. There, an MRI scan detected a brain tumor that extended into the deep areas of Phil’s brain and brainstem and was so large it was twisting his brainstem.
“This complex tumor, located deep within the temporal lobe, was causing Phil to have partial seizures and was affecting critical areas for short-term memory in the hippocampus and the emotional centers in the amygdala,” explains Phil’s neurosurgeon Yaron A. Moshel, MD, PhD, co-director of the Gerald J. Glasser Brain Tumor Center at Atlantic Health. “We knew this most likely represented a high-grade glioma, a type of malignant tumor that grows very quickly. It was essential we intervene aggressively, starting with surgery to remove the mass as soon as possible.”
The Glasser team used an array of highly advanced tools and approaches to safely remove the tumor in its entirety despite several obstacles. Beyond the challenge of removing the tumor from deep inside Phil’s brain, glioma tumors lack clearly defined boundaries, making it extremely difficult to remove only the malignant cells without damaging healthy brain matter. Additionally, these tumors along the brainstem are typically surrounded and fed by small hair-sized blood vessels. Disturbing them would cause a stroke and likely lead to paralysis.
To precisely identify the tissue that needed to be removed, the Glasser team deployed its state-of-the-art fluorescent imaging technology. Before surgery, Phil drank a liquid solution that causes malignant cells to glow hot pink when viewed under a very sophisticated surgical microscope. This instrumental microscope, the Zeiss Kinevo®, was purchased thanks in part to generous donor support through the Foundation for Morristown Medical Center. Wearing 3-D goggles, Dr. Moshel was able to definitively see the hot pink tumor cells and safely remove all of the visible tumor. During surgery, a team of neurologists also performed intraoperative monitoring, helping ensure Phil wasn’t paralyzed during the procedure.
“The team couldn’t have done a better job with the operation,” Phil notes. “Still, I did a lot of research into other brain tumor centers before starting the next phase of treatment to make sure I would be getting top-of-the-line care. I discovered the Glasser Center has access to innovative treatment options that others don’t. This, combined with the incredible experience I had with the doctors, staff and facilities, solidified my decision to stick with Glasser.”
One of the treatments of interest to Phil is the clinical trial of SurVaxM, a vaccine that targets survivin, a protein that keeps cancer cells alive in brain tumors. The vaccine is designed to recognize survivin-expressing cancer cells and stimulate patients’ own immune response to control tumor growth and recurrence. Atlantic Health System’s Overlook Medical Center, home of the Atlantic Neuroscience Institute, was one of the first three sites in the nation selected to participate in the trial and is one of only two sites in the mid-Atlantic region where patients can enroll in the study.
“This vaccine could hold the promise of longer-term survival for patients like Phil who have completed surgery, radiation and chemotherapy for newly diagnosed glioblastoma,” says neuro-oncologist Robert Aiken, MD, lead researcher for the trial at Overlook and co-director of the Glasser Center. “Research and treatments like this may help more people with brain cancer defy traditional timelines and statistics.”
“I hope to be one of those people who change the statistics as science continues to get better and better,” says Phil. “With the Glasser team on my side, I’m fortunate to have that chance.”
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