Brain tumor inspires new mom to live healthy, help others

November 16, 2015 | by Edward-Elmhurst Health
Two days after she brought her newborn son, Zachary, home in June 2013, Denise O’Brien-Peterson of Naperville, IL was about to brush her teeth when the strangest thing happened.

Her body froze.

“I had my toothbrush in my hand. It was almost like my attention was being drawn to the left side,” said Denise. “I was almost frozen in time for what seemed like 30 seconds. Then I just came out of it.”

It happened again about 30 minutes later while her husband, Ron, watched.

Tumor discovered

“The second time I had a lot more numbness in my left arm and hands,” she said. “I could hear my husband saying to me, ‘Are you OK? Talk to me!’ I knew something was wrong, I couldn’t say anything.”

Ron called 911, and an ambulance rushed Denise to Edward Hospital. There, doctors discovered the cause of the seizures: a fist-sized tumor called a meningioma, squeezing the right side of her brain.

Dr. Michael Rabin, MD, a neurosurgeon with Neurosurgery and Spine Surgery S.C., said meningiomas are usually benign, and do not invade the brain. They don’t always have to be removed, but can press on the brain if they grow. Denise’s tumor likely grew larger with help from pregnancy hormones, which can stimulate latent meningiomas, Dr. Rabin said.

New baby, new motivation

For Denise, a triathlete and marathon runner, staying healthy for her newborn son was her top priority.

“As a new mom in my early 40s, I knew I would need to be active for many years,” Denise said.

Dr. Rabin told Denise to prepare for brain surgery in eight days. He and Dr. John Brayton, MD, a neurosurgeon with Neurosurgery and Spine Surgery S.C., removed the tumor on July 8, 2013.

Because Denise’s tumor was more aggressive, she was referred to Dr. Oh-Hoon Kwon, MD, a radiation oncologist with Edward Cancer Center and Fox Valley Radiation Oncology, for follow-up radiation treatment.

Denise had a grade 2 meningioma, Dr. Kwon said, a tumor that tends to grow back.

Paying it forward

“Radiation therapy is able to prevent that recurrence in a vast majority of patients,” Dr. Kwon said. “With her being so young and healthy, I felt she could tolerate treatment very well.”

Denise began the first of 33 radiation treatments in September 2013. She drew on her practiced endurance and focus from years of marathon training to finish strong. By late December 2013, Denise was free and clear of the tumor, with no remaining neurological deficits, Dr. Kwon said.

“Being active, eating well, exercising – it helped mitigate a lot of her side effects (of radiation),” Dr. Kwon said. “The tumor was large, so the target for her radiation was large. Despite that, she did amazingly well.”

During her treatment, Denise did more than just focus on her own wellness. She began using her experience to help others by volunteering and raising funds for the American Brain Tumor Association.

“Our experience has provided a new perspective on many things,” Denise said. “My goal is to continue to advocate for brain tumor survivors and positively spread the word about our incredible experience at Edward Hospital.”

Cancer is a journey that no one expects to take. Learn more about our healthy driven cancer care.

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