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Maddy - Brain Cancer

Maddy - Brain Cancer

Two years ago, as she was walking into yoga class, Maddy momentarily found herself unable to speak. At first, she thought it was due to anxiety about school, but when it kept happening, and the right side of her body periodically started going numb, she sought out a doctor, who diagnosed the problem as being related to migraines.

In early 2021, during midterm exams, Maddy suddenly felt terrible — unwell enough to go to the emergency room at UW Medicine. While Maddy was being treated, her husband, Josef, mentioned her speech and numbness issues to the doctor. The care team ordered a CT scan, then an MRI, and then admitted her to the hospital. They had found a mass near Broca’s area, a part of the brain that plays an important role in turning thoughts and ideas into spoken words. The mass would need to be surgically removed. Maddy was sent home and told to return for surgery a week later.

When the day of surgery arrived, Maddy stayed awake. She was asked to identify some black-and-white photos before the craniotomy, and again while they removed the tumor, to make sure her speech and motor functions were not affected. The surgery team took out about two-thirds of the mass, but the rest was too close to vital structures of the brain.

Maddy’s diagnosis was astrocytoma, a type of cancer that can happen in the brain or spinal cord. The good news was that the cancer was receptive to treatment. Her doctors recommended proton therapy followed by chemo to remove the remaining tumor mass. 

To allow her brain to heal, Maddy waited six weeks before starting proton therapy. She used that time to finish her spring term at the UW. She had her first session of proton therapy in May 2021.

At the Proton Therapy Center, Maddy was treated by Dr. Yolanda Tseng. Using protons allowed Dr. Tseng to avoid exposing the sensitive tissues of Broca’s area, and the tissue close to it, to radiation. These areas are involved in understanding and producing speech. If a person has damage to Broca's area, they can make sounds, but they cannot form words. Proton therapy limits the negative impact to these delicate areas.

“The information overload was so much in the beginning,” Maddy says of her treatment. “Knowing something about neuroanatomy from my studies at school didn’t help lessen the load! Thankfully, my husband came with me to appointments to take notes. You can’t process everything at once, but you should ask as many questions as you can — get explanations for why the doctors recommend certain treatments.”

“It was a privilege to take care of Maddy during her radiation treatment course,” says Dr. Tseng. “I was impressed by her ability to juggle treatment with her ongoing studies, no doubt fueled in part by her radiant energy and positive attitude.”

At first, Maddy found proton therapy intimidating. The idea of having her head locked into place for the precise treatment made her nervous. She also had some skin irritation from the radiation. Otherwise, she felt good. She finished proton therapy in July and started chemotherapy next.

Maddy just finished chemotherapy in January 2022 and has been feeling less fatigued and more relaxed. “When you go through treatment, you think about cancer every day,” she says. “Now I can focus better on school and the future ahead.” She is still in school and will graduate next year.

In their free time, Maddy and Josef like to do yoga and go for hikes. Josef recently bought kayaks for the two of them and is trying to get her out on the water more often.

“I am so grateful for the doctors at UW Medicine and the SCCA Proton Therapy Center,” says Maddy. “Without their intervention in the ER, who knows when I would have been diagnosed and what the outcome would have been? And I can’t thank Dr. Tseng enough. She was really kind and treated me as more than a cancer case.”