June 19, 2019
At 72, Susan Hunnicutt was thoroughly enjoying retirement, spending plenty of time outdoors on her idyllic 2 acres and tending to 25 free-standing gardens across her property in Belton, Missouri. When she began feeling unbalanced and dizzy on a regular basis, she knew something wasn't right.
After visiting her doctor, Susan was diagnosed with atrial fibrillation (AFib) – an irregular heartbeat – and underwent a surgical procedure to correct the problem. But she still felt unsteady and "off," so she returned to her physician.
Over the course of several months, she saw a number of doctors and specialists in search of answers to her worsening symptoms. Now, not only was her balance off, she was frequently belching, and food tasted terrible. She had no appetite and lost 20 pounds.
"When I coughed, it felt like something was stabbing me in the head, and my teeth were incredibly sensitive," says Susan. "My handwriting became horrible, and I was tired all the time. I slept constantly."
Finally, Susan was referred to an ophthalmologist who discovered cancer cells in Susan's eye. A full MRI was ordered, and Susan was referred to The University of Kansas Cancer Center, where a radiation oncologist determined Susan also was dealing with a sizable brain tumor. It fortunately was not cancerous, but was still causing significant problems. Hematologist/oncologist Gregory Crane, MD, contacted Susan with these results.
"He told me I had a benign brain tumor and sent me to the neurosurgeon," says Susan.
That neurosurgeon was Kushal Shah, MD, of The University of Kansas Health System.
"He saw me on Christmas Eve," Susan adds. "I thought that was incredible for him to take time on the holiday for me."
Mapping the right treatment plan
Dr. Shah performed surgery to remove the brain tumor less than a month later.
"Susan had a significant right cerebellar meningioma," says Dr. Shah. "This is a noncancerous tumor, but the size of the tumor was causing compression on vital brain tissue, leading to her symptoms."
Meningiomas are common, and typically slow-growing tumors. The brain can accommodate to a point, but if the growth continues, eventually the patient will have symptoms, Dr. Shah adds.
"Sometimes people think it's just aging or a medication side effect, when in reality it's a tumor like this," he says. "Not all of these tumors require surgery. We base the treatment decision on the patient's age, size of the tumor, comorbidities and pressure on the brain. In Susan's case, our evaluation pointed us to surgery."
Susan's surgery went well, and her outlook is positive.
"Dr. Shah explained everything to me," Susan says. "He said the tumor was roughly the size of 2 golf balls. After surgery, almost all of my symptoms disappeared within a week."
Multidisciplinary approach elevates quality of care
With the brain tumor successfully treated, Susan turned her focus to treatment for the cancer in her eye. The collaboration among her care providers both within and outside of The University of Kansas Health System created a fully informed and seamless treatment process.
"An advantage of getting treatment here is our ability to work together as a team to discuss the various pathologies and determine the best path of care," says Dr. Shah. "That occurs via direct communication and our multidisciplinary tumor board, a gathering of specialists who together plan treatment options for each patient. We have unique mechanisms for our patients that not all health systems have. For Susan, I was able to have the right discussions with her other doctors and make sure we had input from all to help determine the best treatment plan."
"I'm very pleased with the care I've received from Dr. Shah. He always took his time to listen to me and was never in a rush," adds Susan. "If I have a question, I call and ask. The care team is very responsive and call quickly with an answer."
Any time brain tumors occur, even benign ones, patients require continued follow-up care to ensure the tumors don't return. Though Susan is almost symptom-free today, she'll continue to have regularly scheduled MRI scans and visits with Dr. Shah.
Susan credits not only the great care from Dr. Shah, but also the community of support and prayer she found over the course of her journey. She documented her experience on Facebook and had friends across the country following her story.
"My handwriting is becoming readable again, and I'm feeling good," says Susan. "My appetite is back and I'm physically active again."
With this critical step in her health journey behind her, she's moving forward with her eye therapy with determination and optimism.