It was supposed to be a fresh start. After spending the better part of a decade covering politics at NBC News and MSNBC, last July journalist Kasie Hunt was set to become the first new hire of CNN+, anchoring her own daily news show and serving as chief national affairs analyst.
Before delving into her new gig, she decided to clear out her to-do list of long-put-off tasks. In Hunt’s case, that involved following up on a spot deep within her brain that was first discovered months earlier when she had an MRI to evaluate the onset of new headaches.
A battery of tests suggested that the abnormality seen on the MRI wasn’t metastatic cancer. But these tests didn’t definitively answer what it was. And, on follow-up scans, Hunt and her doctors could plainly see that “the spot” was growing, and that there was progression of the swelling in the brain around it.
That’s what brought the Washington, D.C. area resident to Philadelphia, and to Penn Medicine.
It’s an institution Hunt is plenty familiar with. She grew up not far away from Philadelphia, in suburban Wayne, Pa. And for the past few years, Hunt’s father has worked for the health system in real estate and facilities.
A Painful Mystery: When Headaches May Be a Sign of Something More Serious
It was actually her father’s history of migraines — her sister has them, too — that seemed to offer a likely explanation when Hunt began experiencing headaches last spring. An initial MRI, which her doctor orders for all new patients, found that growth — possibly a brain tumor — deep in her cerebellum (the portion of the brain in the back of the head that is important for coordinating motor function).
After brain tumor evaluation and testing showed no evidence of metastatic cancer, which would be the most likely explanation for a tumor in this location of the brain in an otherwise healthy 36-year-old woman, Hunt and her doctors in Washington, D.C. decided on a “watchful waiting” approach. Meanwhile, the migraine medicines Hunt tried didn’t completely relieve her symptoms — headaches so bad that after hosting her early-morning MSNBC show, she’d end up “under the covers for the rest of the day” — but made it possible for her to function both on the job and as the mom of a toddler.
But last August, to everyone’s surprise, a follow-up scan just as Hunt was about to embark on her new role at CNN+ showed the tumor was growing. Her doctor’s husband, a neurologist, had trained at Penn Medicine during his residency, and coupled with what Hunt learned about Penn’s Chair of Neurosurgery, Daniel Yoshor, MD, and his expertise within the Brain Tumor Center at Penn Medicine, she decided to come to Philadelphia for care.
The Decision to Remove a Growing Brain Tumor
Yoshor, who developed an easy rapport with Hunt from the start, was concerned not only that the spot was growing, but “even more worrisome, the brain around it started to get increasingly angry and swollen, in a manner that could account for her headaches.” He hypothesized that the spot was a hemangioblastoma, “a highly vascular brain tumor that is typically benign, but can irritate or compress the adjacent brain and cause neurological symptoms.”
Hunt notes that Yoshor “was the first person who was able to look at this and say, ‘Look, this is what I think is wrong with you,’ which was just a huge relief. Despite the fact that, you know, having somebody telling you that you have a brain tumor is never a great thing!”
Yoshor told Hunt that continuing to watch the tumor, or going in and taking it out, were both valid and reasonable approaches. What tipped the scales for her? Consulting with her new colleague at CNN, Chief Medical Correspondent Sanjay Gupta, MD, who also happens to be an associate professor of Neurosurgery at Emory University School of Medicine in Atlanta. As Hunt describes Gupta’s perspective, “There is a mental health aspect to having something in your head that's growing, and you don't know what it is. I'm a journalist, we're people who need to know what's going on. That to me was another reason to go ahead with surgery to remove it.”
Kasie's Brain Tumor Surgery and Recovery Process
Last October, after getting her affairs in order, just in case, Hunt and her husband, news producer Matt Rivera, left their 2-year-old with his grandmother in D.C. and Hunt settled in at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania (HUP). She reports that Yoshor visited her before the operation, which eased her mind.
The toughest part of the surgery was locating the pea-sized tumor and extracting it without causing any damage to surrounding tissue. “We sent it to Pathology, and to our delight, it was a hemangioblastoma, which is a really good thing,” says Yoshor. “Once you take it out, you’re usually cured for life.”
Genetic testing revealed that the tumor was a sporadic, random occurrence, and wasn’t related to a genetic syndrome which can be associated with hemangioblastomas. The majority of people who get these tumors and do not have the genetic syndrome, like Hunt, never have another one.
“We’re very hopeful that Kasie will have a great long-term outcome,” remarks Yoshor. “At Penn, we take pride in completely removing the types of tumors that can be effectively treated with surgery alone, as is in this case, thankfully. But we are also deeply invested in treating tumors that can’t be cured with surgery alone, using a team approach that includes specialized chemotherapy administered by Penn neuro-oncologists as well as advanced radiotherapy administered by Penn radiation oncologists.” He mentions innovations being pioneered at Penn for brain tumors that cannot be effectively treated with conventional therapies, like a CAR-T therapy clinical trial for malignant brain tumors that is slated to begin soon. “Penn has perhaps the best environment in the country for translational research in this area.”
Her tumor extracted and deemed benign, Hunt had a smooth inpatient post-operative course, spending one night in the HUP intensive care unit as a precaution for close monitoring. “When I woke up initially after surgery, I think the first thing I said to my mom when she came in was that I still feel like myself,” she recalls. “I feel very lucky it was in an area of my brain that doesn't affect personality, cognitive function, any of the things that I use most basically to do my job.”
Nevertheless, Hunt needed about eight weeks to recuperate — both from the physical effects of the surgery, which involved cutting through neck muscle, and from the incisions into the area of her brain that controls gross motor skills and balance. The hardest part was not being able to lift or carry her son, who still sleeps in a crib and needs diaper changes. But her little boy, Mars, took it all in stride: “When I came home, he knew I had a boo-boo on my head. And he's a very sweet kid and would keep asking to see the boo-boo and ask if I was okay.”
Overall, Hunt was impressed by and grateful for the care she received. “I can't say enough about how the Penn medical system was for me and our family,” she says. ““There’s nowhere in the world I would rather have this done than at Penn.”
A Source of Hope
With brain surgery in her rearview mirror and a clean bill of health, Hunt is finally ready to launch her new show on CNN+, “The Source with Kasie Hunt.” She describes it as focused on building conversations around commonality, rather than highlighting political divisions. “We need to have places where people can listen to each other, where we remember that politics isn’t war. And hopefully, we can bring a little bit of the fun back,” Hunt shares.
Although politics will be the main thrust of the program, Hunt — who began her career reporting on health care policy — will look for opportunities to highlight health-related topics. Her brain tumor odyssey showed her that “all the problems I wrote about as a health reporter, from insurance company red tape to equity and access to high-quality care, are really that hard to deal with in real life.”
Hunt also hopes to find ways to cover brain health specifically. “I’ve learned more than I ever wanted to about this,” she jokes. “If me talking about this once on the air helps one person decide they're going to go see their doctor because of something they've been putting off, then it's worth it to me.”