Courageous Student Focused on Next Chapter of Life Following Brain Surgery
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Northwestern Memorial surgeons utilize endoscopic approach to access tumors
Nineteen year old Annie Wang recently wrapped up her first year of college and is looking forward to traveling to China this summer. The future is bright for this vibrant teenager who is studying at Wellesley College. However just three years earlier, Wang and her family were faced with uncertainty when she was diagnosed with a brain tumor at the age of 16.
On her 16th birthday, Wang woke up to blurred vision and quickly made an eye doctor appointment. After seeking care from multiple specialists, Wang was diagnosed with a chordoma, a rare brain tumor located deep at the base of her skull.
The tumor required immediate surgery and Wang was placed in the care of James Chandler, MD, surgical director of neuro-oncology at Northwestern Memorial Hospital and co-director of the Northwestern Brain Tumor Institute (NBTI), and Robert Kern, MD, chair of otolaryngology at Northwestern Memorial.
“Annie’s tumor was one of the more complex ones we’ve operated on and was located in a very precarious area of her brain,” said Kern, also a professor of otolaryngology at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine. “Additionally, as young as she was we wanted to take extreme care to approach the surgery in a way that wouldn’t be disfiguring and would allow her to bounce back as quickly as possible.”
The surgeons decided to use a technique that made no incision in her skull and removed the tumor through her nose. “If Annie had been a patient only a few years earlier, the best option we could have offered her was a face-splitting surgery,” said Chandler, who is also a professor of neurological surgery at the Feinberg School.
This minimally invasive method yields reduced recovery times and lessens the potential for permanent facial or cranial disfigurement. “An endoscope is guided through the nose to provide the neurosurgeon visualization and access to the tumor,” explained Kern.
The complexity and location of the tumor created unique challenges for the surgical team. “Annie’s tumor was challenging to remove because it compressed her brainstem and engulfed her carotid arteries,” said Chandler. The brainstem is the most critical area of the brain and if injured a patient could have severe neurologic damage. Precise resection is aided by the use of intraoperative image guidance technology, which permits safer and more complete tumor removal.
Northwestern Memorial is one of only a few centers in Illinois to have a neurosurgeon and otolaryngologist dedicated to skull base surgery. The program is one of the region’s busiest and largest, performing approximately 30 of these procedures annually.
“This technique is the ultimate example of team work,” said Kern. “The multidisciplinary approach to removing skull base brain tumors provides our patients with an excellent alternative to traditional surgery.”
Chandler echoed Kern’s sentiments: “It is a great advancement in surgery and treatment of brain tumors,” he said. “We have the same ability to remove tumors as with open surgery, but the impact on the patient is much less. We can safely operate on tumors while returning our patients to their daily lives sooner.”
Just two days after the surgery, Wang returned home with no physical impairments and started her junior year of high school the following Monday. Since the experience, Wang has focused on the future and has a renewed sense of optimism. A passionate student of history and culture, she enjoyed her first semester of college and is looking forward to continuing her education and building on life experiences. “My goal is to be able to travel around the world and bring every foreign culture back home, whether as a museum curator, a journalist, or even a teacher.”
Reflecting on her surgery, Wang views it as more as a molehill than a mountain in her life. “It has taught me at a young age to take life and really make something of it. I plan to use this situation as a stepping stone to achieve something greater,” she said.
Both Chandler and Kern marvel their patient’s maturity and agree that she handled her diagnosis and surgery better than many people twice her age. Although they wish she were studying medicine in college, both are thrilled that she is healthy and successfully completed her first year of college.
For more information about the Northwestern Brain Tumor Institute and the Endoscopic Cranial Base Center visit www.braintumorinstitute.org.