Lung cancer often spreads to the brain. About 10 percent of patients with non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC) have brain metastases at their initial diagnosis and as many as 40 percent will eventually develop metastatic brain tumors at some stage during their illness.
Vivian Wilson was part of that 40 percent. The 57-year-old Kentucky resident was diagnosed with adenocarcinoma non-small cell lung cancer, the most common type of lung cancer, in September 2012.
“I was having a horrible headache that would not go away, so I went to the emergency room,” recalled Wilson.
While in the hospital, Wilson found out that she had lung cancer and it had spread to her brain. Unlike brain cancer, which originates in the brain and consists of brain cancer cells, brain metastases from lung cancer occur when cancer cells break off from the original tumor in the lungs and enter the bloodstream to the brain, where they begin to multiply. While metastatic lung cancer can rarely be cured, improvements in the detection and treatment of brain metastases are allowing people to live longer lives of higher quality.
“The lung cancer was very small, barely detectable, but the brain tumors were not,” Wilson said. “I had one very large tumor and two smaller ones.”
While the physicians could not get a sample of the lung cancer because it was in a difficult spot to reach, behind one of Wilson’s ribs, they could see that she had one large metastatic brain tumor that was inflamed and causing her headache, in addition to two smaller metastatic brain tumors.
Wilson had surgery for the large metastatic brain tumor, radiation for the two smaller metastatic brain tumors, and three doses of chemotherapy for her lung cancer. A few months later, at the beginning of 2013, Wilson found out that the tumor in her lung had grown, not shrunk, and she was given an estimated six months to live. Wilson had come a long way in her fight with lung cancer and brain tumors and she was not about to give up easily, so she decided that she wanted to seek a second opinion.
“A friend of mine worked in neurosurgery at UofL,” said Wilson. “She was the first to tell me about CyberKnife and suggested that I make an appointment. My case was then taken to the multi-disciplinary team at the Brown Cancer Center.”
The team worked together to develop a treatment plan for Wilson’s metastatic brain tumors and lung cancer. They decided she would have chemotherapy with radiation for her lung tumor and CyberKnife® Robotic Radiosurgery System treatment, an advanced technology that delivers extremely precise large doses of radiation to tumors within five or fewer outpatient treatments and does not involve surgery or sedation, for her metastatic brain tumors.
“I was really impressed with the team,” Wilson commented. “The neurosurgeon, medical oncologist, and Dr. Woo (radiation oncologist) got together and worked together the whole time.” The medical oncologist worked on stopping the source of the cancer in the lung, while Dr. Woo focused on treating the metastatic brain tumors. “At the previous hospital where I was first treated, they had a team, but it didn’t seem like they communicated with each other.”
Wilson’s first CyberKnife treatment was on April 25, 2013. She remembers the experience like it was yesterday.
“You see this big machine and it is kind of intimidating,” remarked Wilson. “I was a little nervous, but I had no reason to be. The staff at Louisville CyberKnife were genuinely nice and talked to me during the treatment, reassuring me, which kept me calm.”
Wilson said her treatment was about 45 minutes to an hour and did not hurt at all. Not only was CyberKnife easier than she expected and surprisingly pain-free, but Wilson also said she felt normal after treatment. She noted that she felt like herself afterward and that the treatments did not interfere with her life.
After Wilson’s initial CyberKnife treatment, more tumors showed up, which is typical of metastatic brain tumors. Dr. Woo prepared Wilson for the possibility of more tumors and had her undergo MRI scans every three months to detect new tumors. He also let her know that the CyberKnife System can retreat patients that had radiation therapy before, making it an effective treatment option for people like herself who were having a recurrence of cancer.
On August 8, 2013, Wilson had CyberKnife treatment for three more metastatic brain tumors, and one more was treated on December 5, 2013.
Just like before, Wilson said that everyone at Louisville CyberKnife was prepared and treatment went well.
“Everyone always asked me with genuine concern, how I was doing and how I felt,” said Wilson. “I felt like family.”
One person that made a big impression on Wilson was her radiation oncologist and Louisville CyberKnife Medical Director, Shiao Woo, M.D.
“Not only were Dr. Woo’s credentials the top in his field, but his personality was fantastic, and he always made me laugh,” Wilson said.
Wilson’s December treatment was her last one. Her MRI scans went from three months, to six months, to once a year, and now she has graduated to scans every two years. She hopes she never has to deal with another metastatic brain tumor again, but she knows if she has to, CyberKnife treatment will be the way to go.
“It took me a while to get back to feeling normal after the brain surgery and chemotherapy for the lung cancer, but the CyberKnife treatments were fine,” Wilson said. “I feel better than I have in years and I feel like I can do anything. I have recommended CyberKnife treatment to several people and strongly encourage them not to be afraid to get a second option. I want to tell people not to lose hope. I got my life back and truly feel like if it weren’t for CyberKnife, I wouldn’t be here. It saved my life.”
If you, or a loved one, have recently been diagnosed with cancer and you would like information on treatment options, or a second opinion, please do not hesitate to contact a member of the Louisville CyberKnife team today.