Florida Mom, 27, Is Cancer Free After Doctor Removes Brain Tumor Other Surgeons Said Was 'Inoperable'
"They gave me a death sentence."
This article originally appeared on People
When Stephanie first began getting headaches last November, she wasn't terribly worried because they "came and went," she says.
By January, they became more constant with no relief from the pain, so she decided to go to her doctor to get checked out.
When the diagnosis came on Feb. 16, it was worse than anything she could have imagined. She had a grade 4 glioblastoma — the most aggressive, deadly brain tumor there is — on her brain stem. Without removal and treatment, patients typically die within a few months, experts say. Even with treatment, without removal the average survival rate is 15 months, doctors told her.
"The doctor said because of the location, they weren't willing to operate; that it was too risky," Stephanie, who asked that her last name not be used to protect her family's privacy, tells PEOPLE. "They decided to leave it and just press forward with radiation and chemotherapy and hope for the best."
She and her husband Michael consulted three other top neurosurgeons in the country who also refused to try to remove it, she says.
"I was a young mom and wife and I really felt like they gave me a death sentence," she says. "Everything we'd read about glioblastomas said you need surgery to remove it if you stand a chance."
Devastated, Stephanie started a blog, mainly to update her friends and family but also to capture everything she was feeling.
"So I have the worst kind of cancer in the worst place possible," Stephanie wrote on Feb. 18. "Hearing that statistically I have 15 months to live is just heartbreaking. I'm only 27 years old, I have a beautiful 2-year-old daughter and I love my husband more than anything on this earth. How could this be happening!?"
Miraculously, that blog somehow found its way to Dr. Michael Sughrue, a neurosurgeon at OU Medical Center in Oklahoma City who specializes in removing brain tumors other doctors say are inoperable. He immediately posted a comment.
"I wrote, ‘Hey, I'm a neurosurgeon. I specialize in very difficult brain tumors. Not all of these things are really inoperable. Why don't you show me your films and I can see if I can do something to help you,' " Sughrue, 38, tells PEOPLE. "Within five minutes she emailed me and said, ‘What do I need to do?' "
She sent him the MRIs of her tumor. After reviewing them he told her he thought he could help her.
"I said, ‘I can get at least most of this out without too much risk but here's what the risks are,' " he says.
Stephanie and her husband, who were on their way to Disney World in Orlando, were floored by his reaction.
"He said, ‘Honestly, I thought it would be much worse than what you showed me,' " says Stephanie. "I thought he was going to tell us the same thing the other doctors did. I really didn't think he'd tell us he could do it."
She and Michael tabled the discussion for the day so they could enjoy their daughter's first trip to Disney and decided to talk about it that night.
"I was terrified," she says. "Why were all these other doctors saying, ‘No, it's not worth the risk' and he's saying, ‘It's not as bad as I thought it would be?' "
They decided to fly out to at least hear what he had to say.
"We said, ‘This is just too crazy.' We've been praying about this and all of a sudden my blog finds its way to a neurosurgeon a thousand miles away that says it's not that bad," she says. "We decided we'd fly out there and if he's crazy we'll just come home. So we flew out there and hoped we didn't waste the money on plane tickets."
By week's end, she was being operated on.
"I was scared to do the surgery but I was scared not to," she says. "From everything we'd read, people don't survive a glioblastoma if they don't take it out. I felt like my chances were greater having had the surgery."
After a two-and-a-half hour operation on Feb. 24 (Michael's 29th birthday), Dr. Sughrue was able to remove about 90 to 95 percent of the tumor and Stephanie is now considered cancer free, he says. Six days after her operation, Stephanie started a regimen of five days a week of radiation for a month and seven days a week of chemotherapy.
She was able to come home to Florida on April 15, the night before Easter.
"It's been two months since my surgery and I feel really great," she says. "We just feel so much more hopeful now. I know even with having the surgery my chances aren't great, but I have to believe this is going to be okay because if I believe any other way there's just no point."
After a four-week break, Stephanie will start taking a pill form of chemotherapy one week a month and get another MRI in the next two or three months.
It's hard for Stephanie to put into words how grateful she is to Sughrue.
"He gave me a chance when no one else would," she says. "I'm so thankful he was willing to reach out to a random person on a blog and look at my scans without me having to fly out there. I don't think a lot of doctors would do that."
While she has no idea what her future holds, for now she's just grateful to be alive.
"I'm just trying to take every day as the gift that it is," she says. "I feel like I'm trying to make everything a moment in my life. You never think something like this is going to happen to you. Who goes to a doctor for a headache and finds out they have grade 4 brain cancer? I'm happy to be here and I'm happy to be at home."
And she has advice for others who are in her situation.
"People need to know that inoperable doesn't necessarily mean inoperable," she says.
In fact, Dr. Sughrue says about 50 people with similar dire prognoses have contacted him after reading stories about how he helped Stephanie. He's evaluating their cases, he says.
The reason he can help people like Stephanie when other surgeons won't is due to a personal decision he made in early 2012, shortly after arriving at OU Medicine and starting his professional career. Most surgeons won't try to remove tumors like Stephanie's because it is risky, not because it's impossible, he says.
He decided to talk to his patients and get their thoughts.
"Most people were willing to take some risk to get more time with their families," he says. "As doctors, we're trained to think of things in terms of science and statistics. I came to the conclusion that patients view it very differently. They view it as a battle for their lives. I just said, ‘I'm going to get on that team.' That team makes more sense to me than the team of trying to sit down and infinitely split hairs."
Since then he's removed about 50 or 60 "inoperable" brain tumors, he says.
"Everyone who comes to my door, I'm going to do what I can for them," he says. "I want to be able to look in their eyes and say I did everything I could to keep them alive."