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Survivors persevere after brain tumors

Brain tumors often used to lead to death and long-time survival rates are still low, but two Nevada County women who had the affliction and could easily see it return insist there is life afterward.

Both Melanie Wellner of Grass Valley and Lisa Curry of Nevada City were misdiagnosed at first after suffering grand mal seizures. Wellner was told she had a stroke and Curry a sinus infection, until MRI scans located their tumors.

Wellner’s discovery was little comfort, because she was told it was inoperable.

“I had no idea what to do,” she said.

The news was related to Dr. Bill Newsom’s wife, Christine Newsom, which caused her medical oncologist husband at Sierra Nevada Memorial Hospital’s Cancer Center to call Wellner.

“He said get a second opinion at UCSF (University of California – San Francisco) and that saved my life,” said Wellner, a former attorney in the Nevada County Counsel’s office. “The doctor there said. ‘We’ll get most of this,'” and he did remove the bulk of her tumor in surgery.

“I tell people there are only two places to go,” for brain tumors, Wellner said, “Stanford and UCSF.”

“We don’t have a neurosurgeon here,” because there is not enough call for one, according to Dr. Dick Evans, a radiation oncologist at the Grass Valley hospital’s cancer center. “UCSF has a real strong neuro-oncology program, they’re world class.” However, the hospital does give brain cancer patients follow-up radiation and chemotherapy treatment after surgery elsewhere.

The cancer physician said most brain tumors present themselves with seizures like the ones that hit Wellner and Curry. But symptoms can also be subtle.

“It’s usually something doesn’t work right,” Evans said. “They can’t see right, they’re not walking right or they’re confused. Often the person won’t recognize it, but they’re family will.”

Prior to her seizure in 2000, Wellner noticed her left hand was not as fast as it used to be when she played the accordion. Having retired from the county, she was taking advanced music classes at Sierra College and “It was getting harder and harder to grasp.”

“There were little hints like my short-term memory loss,” said Curry. She chalked it up to the stress she was going through during tax season as an employee in the Nevada County Tax Collector’s office.

About 120 different types of brain cancer exist, according to the National Brain Tumor Foundation. Central brain tumors originate there while others occur because of spread from cancer in another area of the body.

Only about 30 percent of most people who get brain tumors survive five years after diagnosis, according to the foundation.

Causes and risk factors can be environmental, according to the American Brain Tumor Association, or come from genes inherited by parents. Though scientists suspect some chemicals, smoking and air pollution can contribute towards brain tumors, no studies completely link them.

Researchers do think there are genes working incorrectly in brain tumors that do things like accelerate their growth, the association said.

Life after treatment

Surgery, chemotherapy and radiation treatment put Curry in better shape after her 1997 diagnosis, but she knows her prognosis holds no promises.

“Ten years ago, it was a life sentence, you were told you only have three to four months, but not now,” Curry said. “My prognosis is I feel like when I’m ready to go, I will.

“Cancer is a part of my life, but it doesn’t rule my life,” Curry said. “I can’t ignore it, but there are other things I focus on. It’s not going to beat me.”

“I’ve got some disabilities because of the treatment and I’ve learned to live with it,” Curry said. “I couldn’t do without post-it notes, but I’m here and thankful for each day.”

“It takes your brain a long time to heal,” Wellner said. “I could barely walk up and down the block and I used to be a runner and a dancer.”

With the help of a neighbor, Wellner began to take longer walks and eventually went to the gym for workouts. She has lost her sense of musical rhythm, but can drive again thanks to anti-seizure medicine.

She also knows what the future will bring.

“They got about 90 percent and then I had radiation, but there’s no cure,” Wellner said of her situation. “They expect it will come back.”

She has an MRI every six months at UCSF and she learns to live with her situation through online support groups.

“That was very helpful,” Wellner said. “The doctors don’t volunteer much so you don’t know what to ask. With the Web site we share information and learn things like how to manage seizure medication.”

“I’m retired and I’m on disability, but I volunteer,” said Curry, with Meals On Wheels and the Inner-faith Food Ministry. “I watched my sons grow up and we still go camping and fishing.”

To contact Senior Staff Writer Dave Moller, e-mail dmoller@theunion.com or call 477-4237.

Brain tumor Web sites and information

n The North American Brain Tumor Coalition is holding Brain Tumor Action Week May 4 through 10.

To find out more about this and the coaltion, log onto to

http://www.nabraintumor.org/.

n For other brain tumor information, see these Web sites:

National Brain Tumor Foundation, http://www.braintumor.org/.

Brain Tumor Society, http://www.tbts.org.