“For some reason people just want to touch me, talk to me and be close to me…”
For some people, just making it through the day can feel like a small miracle. For Jennifer Sugioka, that describes every day. Defying impossible odds, she continues to thrive 11 years after her diagnosis with a terminal brain tumor. Her story is one of courage, resilience, and triumph – and of how the right medical team can mean the difference between life and death.
It was during her first year at Loyola Law School that Jennifer, a 23 year-old California native with deep roots in Burbank and a degree in anthropology from UCLA, first started noticing the headaches. Just before final exams, she was walking downstairs to her car when her legs gave out; fortunately, a friend was there to catch her – and to convince her it was time to visit the neurologist.
“They gave me an MRI,” Jennifer recalls. “Two hours later, the doctor called to say that I had a brain tumor.” The diagnosis – glioblastoma multiforme, the most aggressive kind of brain tumor – was devastating, and the outlook was grim: Jennifer was told that, in all likelihood, she had between nine and 12 months to live.
The neurologist put her on a powerful anti-seizure medication called Dilantin and suggested they operate to remove the entire tumor right away. In the meantime, her symptoms were getting worse, with frequent fainting spells and rashes that were breaking out all over her body.
Jennifer decided to seek a second opinion and remembered that her college roommate once babysat for Neil Martin, a prominent neurosurgeon at UCLA.
Seeing Dr. Martin turned out to be the right decision. “Almost immediately, Dr. Martin realized that a lot of my ‘symptoms’ were actually the result of an allergic reaction to the Dilantin,” she says. “He could also see that the tumor was wrapped around an artery near the speech function in my brain, and that taking out the entire thing would be the worst thing to do.”
After extensive brain mapping (at the time, part of a cutting-edge clinical trial at UCLA Neurosurgery; today, a cornerstone of brain tumor treatment), Dr. Martin safely removed the largest possible portion of the tumor – and Jennifer’s ability to speak remained in tact.
Next up was a grueling course of radiation, and then enrollment in Dr. Linda Liau’s brain cancer vaccine clinical trial. “I was lucky,” Jennifer points out, “because there was no guarantee that my tumor was the type that would respond to the therapy.
Fortunately, after testing some of the cells removed during surgery, Dr. Liau told me I was eligible for the trial.” Amazingly, that experience was more than a decade ago, and today Jennifer has the distinction of being one of an infinitesimal number of people surviving long term with glioblastoma. And, though her disease presents endless, and daunting, health challenges, she is grateful for every day.