Scott: Brain Cancer Survivor

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Scott DeFilio was living the good life in 2010. He was 38 years old, happily married with two young sons and another on the way, and on a well-earned path for partnership in the CPA firm where he was employed.

But in the fall, Scott began feeling tingling and numbing sensations on his right side. Several times, he saw his general practitioner in New Haven, who was unwilling to order additional tests and prescribed anti-anxiety medication. When the tingling sensations became more pronounced and Scott developed headaches, his wife insisted he seek another opinion. That physician ordered an MRI, a technique that uses a magnetic field and radio waves to create detailed images of the organs and tissues of the body.

“When I brought the disc with the MRI results back to the doctor,” said Scott, “she came into the office with a terrible look on her face. She told me I had a large tumor, eight centimeters, in my brain. I was completely dumbfounded. I began shaking so violently I could hardly drive myself home.”

“I come from a big Italian family and immediately they gathered around me and gave me incredible support. We scheduled an appointment at a cancer center. The doctors there gave me more bad news. They felt that the tumor was only 30 to 35 percent removable. I was so devastated … I felt that my life was over. Luckily, one of our close friends worked at Yale and got me an appointment with Dr. Joseph Piepmeier. We were able to see the surgeon in one week’s time.”

Joseph M. Piepmeier, MD, is Nixdorff-German Professor of Neurosurgery at Yale School of Medicine and Section Chief for Neuro-Oncology in the Department of Neurosurgery.

Meeting with Dr. Piepmeier was a life-saving experience for Scott. “Dr. Piepmeier told me it was a very large tumor, but that he could remove it. He said that Yale had a neurosurgery suite especially equipped for operating on brain tumors. He was so positive and hopeful, unlike the other doctors who I had met with. I had a hard time believing the news. I went from a death sentence back to the land of the living. I knew immediately that I had found the right doctor and the right place for my treatment.”

Smilow Cancer Hospital’s intra-operative neurosurgery MRI suite is one of the few such units in the country. It features a powerful MRI that allows surgeons to take images during the operation. Without moving the patient, the doctors can precisely target the tumor, see what areas need protection, and determine whether the tumor has been completely removed and whether there were any complications.

“We can do things no one else can do,” said Dr. Piepmeier, “especially with brain tumors. We’ve had several patients who were turned away at other major medical centers that couldn’t remove the tumors, but we could, and we did, successfully.”

Eleven days after Scott’s first appointment, Dr. Piepmeier performed the 10-hour surgery, removing the large tumor -- an oligodendroglioma, a slow growing, benign tumor.

“Everything at Smilow was great,” said Scott. “The care, my recovery, everything was smooth. I was wide awake an hour after surgery. The next morning I was able to get out of bed and I went home in two days, without any major problems. The tumor was in a spot in my brain that controlled motor movements and speech recognition, so Dr. Piepmeier had to be very careful not to cause complications for me. I wasn’t allowed to drive for three months. I went to speech therapy classes at Gaylord Hospital for a couple of months and soon after that I was able to go back to work, with follow-up MRIs scheduled with my Yale doctors.”

As Scott began the second year after his brain surgery, he felt some of the same tingling sensations he had felt before his tumor was diagnosed. His doctors suspected seizure-like activity caused by some of the slow-growing cells still in his brain and recommended Scott start on chemotherapy, taking an oral medication five days each month. “After a lot of thought, and a second opinion at Memorial Sloan Kettering, I decided to take the doctors’ recommendation. I was on chemotherapy for 11 months, with no side effects. The medication shrunk those cells in my brain and the tingling has gone away.”

Scott recalls that the most stressful time for him was from when he started having his first symptoms to his first appointment with Dr. Piepmeier. “That time,” noted Scott, “when we didn’t know what my problem was and how we were going to solve it, was the hardest. I wish I had gone to Smilow first and had seen Dr. Piepmeier right away. It would have saved my loved ones and me so many difficult days. The minute I met Dr. Piepmeier, although I was still nervous, the comfort I felt, knowing he had determined what the issue was and what he was going to do about it, made me feel a lot better.”

What has surprised Scott most is that now that he’s recovered, he feels like a new person. “Amazingly, it’s like I’m a 21-year old kid again. Before the surgery, I would play 18 holes of golf and feel like I was dead. Now I can play 18 holes and still have stamina. Dr. Piepmeier told me the tumor had been growing for a long time … probably 20 years to get that big, I didn’t realize how having a brain tumor could affect my ability to do things and how tired I became. It’s remarkable how much better I feel,” said Scott.