June 22, 2015 | by David Levine
Liz Graef-Larcher’s first brain tumor was discovered by accident six years ago.
The then-48-year-old with a long history of sinus problems and headaches had been sent for an MRI, and the scan found a lesion in her brain called a meningioma – a tumor that arises in the meninges, the layers of tissue that cover and protect the brain and spinal cord.
Meningiomas compress the nerve tissues near them, and can cause a variety of problems including seizures, headaches, blurred vision. and personality or memory changes. They're the most common type of brain tumor in adults, according to the American Cancer Society, and occur twice as often in women.
The tumors occur in approximately seven to eight of every 100,000 people and about 80 percent are noncancerous. They can be removed by surgery, but unless the meningioma is causing symptoms, most doctors, including Graef-Larcher's, usually advise monitoring over time.
Then, in 2009, Graef-Larcher was given a series of follow-up MRIs, and this time the scans found another brain tumor – one that had metastasized from her lung. "Although I had no symptoms, my doctor told me that I had cancer in my pelvis, abdomen, lungs and brain," she said.
The search for a surgeon
She was diagnosed with Stage 4 lung cancer, with the second brain tumor requiring immediate treatment. "The first surgeon I consulted with told me that I would not last more than a year without surgery," Graef-Larcher said. "He recommended brain surgery to remove the lesions in my brain and radiation for the other lesions."
Graef-Larcher was open to the treatment recommendation but not the fact that the operation would be performed by a resident under the supervision of a surgeon. Her sister, a nurse, advised her to get a second opinion.
"I called City of Hope and I had an appointment with Dr. Behnam Badie the next day. I was amazed. He is the chief of Neurosurgery and the director of the Brain Tumor Program. And he was willing to see me the next day?"
Graef-Larcher was so reassured by Badie’s obvious expertise and his ability to listen that she decided to forgo radiation to shrink the cancerous tumor before surgery, a common therapeutic option.
"He is one in a million,” Graef-Larcher said of Badie. She was particularly touched when Badie asked her how she wore her hair and where she parted it. "At first I didn't understand why he was asking these questions. He explained that he wanted to make sure that when my hair grew back, it would cover my scar."
Badie successfully removed both tumors, which were only inches apart, during the same operation.
Today, Graef-Larcher is cancer-free. She had three months of chemotherapy to ensure that her lung cancer would not return, and she takes oral chemotherapy drugs every day. She has scans of her lung and brain every three months, which have all been "clean." Just last month, Badie told her she only needs scans every six months.
Reflecting on a key decision
"Going to City of Hope saved my life," Graef-Larcher said. "From the first call to intake to meeting with Dr. Badie and the other staff members, I felt as if I were the only patient at the hospital. Everyone treated me with kindness and respect. I know City of Hope is a big national acclaimed facility, but I felt as if I was their only patient."
Although Graef-Larcher has experienced some slight memory issues related to chemotherapy, she's had no side effects from her brain surgery. She has since retired from her company and now spends her days with her husband and two daughters.
"I am enjoying my life for the first time in years. And I am grateful to Dr. Badie and City of Hope for not just their skills that saved my life but for the way they did it – with kindness and caring."
Learn more about becoming a patient or getting a second opinion by visiting our website or by calling800-826-HOPE (4673). You may also request a new patient appointment online. City of Hope staff will explain what's required for a consult at City of Hope and help you determine, before you come in, whether or not your insurance will pay for the appointment.