When Clara Guy was pregnant with her second child, she was having serious headaches. Her doctor ordered an MRI, thinking it might be migraines.
“It was at that time that they found the first tumor,” Guy says with the clarity of a woman who has told her story many times before.
It was a glioblastoma, the most common and deadly form of brain tumor. About 15,000 people are diagnosed with glioblastoma every year in the United States. The average life expectancy with treatment, which includes surgery, radiation and chemotherapy, is fourteen months.
Guy ended up having a C-section and brain surgery all in the same week to remove the tumor. Unfortunately, a year later, during a check-up, doctors discovered the tumor had returned.
“I was basically given a life sentence, here's how much longer you can expect to live, and limited to that. And that was too short, two little kids, a life ahead of us. It wasn't time for that sentence.”
That’s when Guy turned to the Preston Robert Tisch Brain Tumor Center at Duke. Guy had another brain surgery and more treatment, but what she believes really turned the tide for her was an immunotherapy clinical research trial.
“It turns your immune system on into high gear to teach it to fight the cancer cells,” Guy says with excitement.
A vaccine was injected into Guy’s tumor which then alerted her body’s immune system of the threat so it could begin attacking the cancer. Guy’s trial is one of three successful immunotherapy trials now getting a lot of recognition after a CBS “60 Minutes” segment showing the strides Duke was making towards a cure for glioblastoma using the polio virus.
“When you go in and all of a sudden instead of having that sentence given to you, it’s no, here’s what we can do for you,” Guy says with a smile as if she is remembering the moment she regained hope. “It's like they're willing to stand there and be a cheerleader for you and say no you can make it, you can make it further.”
My mother died after being diagnosed with a glioblastoma in 2012. She was also treated at Duke. For me, her illness was full of dark days. If anyone tried to sell me hope, I wasn’t buying it.
But almost two years out from diagnosis with the help of Duke’s researchers and doctors Guy is now tumor free.
“You have all of these potential options to help heal you, to help kill that tumor. And make your life continue on. Not six to 18 months. Let’s go six to 18 years,” Guy says with a big smile.
If this is what hope looks like, I’m in.
(On Saturday, April 25, the Preston Robert Tisch Brain Tumor Center will hold its annual 5K, Angels Among Us, to help raise money for research like this.)
Amanda is the mom of two, a reporter for WRAL-TV and the author of several books including some on motherhood. Find her here on Mondays.