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"Glowing Tumor" Helps Neurosurgeon Pinpoint Brain Tumors


How did Tamara fight a brain tumor? She agreed to make it glow. Tamara and Brain Tumor

What if a doctor could make a tumor glow so that in the operating room, every piece could be removed? For Tamara, this new technology – invented at Penn – meant her brain tumor would be gone – all of it.

“It started with a migraine headache that pounded for five days — pain unlike anything I’d experienced,” says Tamara as she describes events that led up to brain tumor surgery at Penn Medicine. “When I couldn’t take it anymore, I went to my local emergency department.”

There, a CT scan and MRI study revealed a brain tumor called a meningioma.

“Time stopped when the doctor told me. All I could think of were my children, my mother, and that I was not even 40 years old,” says Tamara.

A meningioma is a tumor of the meninges — the connective tissue that covers the brain and spinal cord. Most is not cancer, but when a meningioma grows, it can exert pressure against the brain and destroy a person’s quality of life, or worse – take it.

Tamara does her homework

“I knew that the best offense against a serious illness is knowledge,” explains Tamara—a seasoned pharmaceutical representative. “I read everything I could find about meningiomas. Since my tumor was small and contained, my neurosurgeon monitored it regularly to see if it grew and by how much.” For a while this strategy worked.

And then it didn’t. Tamara experienced bouts of dizziness and feeling off balance. Tests showed that the tumor was growing, but this time, it pressed against her brain: It had to come out.

Another hospital said ‘go to Penn.’

Before undergoing brain surgery, Tamara wanted opinions from three surgeons. Among others, she saw John Y.K. Lee, MD, a Penn neurosurgeon, with whom she felt an immediate connection. A neurosurgeon at another hospital knew Dr. Lee personally. He told Tamara that ‘Dr. Lee is a great surgeon’ and to have her surgery at Penn. The decision was made.

A courageous patient, a brilliant surgeon

“Everything about Dr. Lee instilled confidence in me,” says Tamara. He was smart, calm and proactive. His team cared for me clinically and emotionally. Dr. Lee also broached an innovative idea to Tamara: Would she consider participating in a Penn-developed clinical trial that would ‘light up’ her tumor during surgery – to show exactly where the tumor was located and to distinguish it from normal brain tissue.

Tamara felt this clinical trial could be of great benefit. So she agreed and became patient number one. The day before surgery Tamara was injected with a special fluorescent dye to make her tumor glow.

‘It lit up like a light bulb.’

That is how Dr. Lee describes Tamara’s tumor during surgery. Using this new technique, Dr. Lee located and excised all of the meningioma during Tamara’s five-hour brain surgery. The tumor was now out of Tamara’s brain and her life – a triumph of skill, innovation and trust.

A bright future

After rehabilitation and rest, Tamara’s life was restored to a new normal. Tamara says, “At my last visit, Dr. Lee said he’d see me in two years— that is an eternity:

“Dr. Lee gave me back my hope, joy and purpose in life: To see my children graduate from college, to enjoy my family and to live every day with gratitude.”

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