Alfea has enrolled in university this fall and is looking forward to pursuing a career in research. Just one year earlier, her outlook was very different.
“Just as I was about to graduate from high school,” says Alfea, “I started getting headaches. I thought they were from stress, studying too much, and not getting enough sleep. I rested. I took naps. My headaches went away.” Weeks later, the headaches returned with greater intensity along with nausea and an inability to keep food or water down.
Recounting the events that followed, she continues, “I went to my doctor. At first I was told it was a stomach flu. I was prescribed medicine. My symptoms nevertheless got worse from one day to the next day. It was just so painful and I couldn't sleep properly. I also kept throwing up.”
Despite repeat visits to the doctor, her condition deteriorated. Her mother took her to the emergency department. Nothing of concern showed up in her blood work. The consensus was she was experiencing migraines and dehydration. Alfea’s mother was not convinced. She requested a CT scan. She was told that doing so was inadvisable unless absolutely necessary. The procedure involves the use of radiation, which carries a higher risk for someone her daughter’s age.
By this point, just two weeks after graduation, Alfea could no longer continue with her summer job. She explains, “Every time I moved, I became dizzy. All I could do was lie down. I had a hard time even showering because the smallest movements threw my sense of balance off.”
Alfea has little memory of what happened next. As later recounted by her mother, she was taken again to emergency. Says Alfea, “My mom was very concerned because I could not walk normally. By the time she got me to the hospital, I could not physically move.” While she was getting assessed, she collapsed. They announced a code blue. At that point, she wasn't aware of anything. “I’m told,” says Alfea, “that I had my hands on my head. I was saying that I was in a lot of pain and I was flaying about.” The ER doctor tested her reflexes, which were not responding normally.
At that point, a CT scan was ordered, which led to emergency surgery. In addition to abnormal masses in Alfea’s brain and spine, a build up of cerebrospinal fluid was discovered. A shunt was implanted to drain the fluid. A further surgery was undertaken to biopsy her growths. It turned out she had pilocytic astrocytoma, which is a cancer of the central nervous system.
“Although I did not know it at first,” says Alfea, “the neurosurgeon told my mom I had an aggressive cancer and that the tumour could not be surgically removed. It was estimated that I had six months to live.” Further analysis revealed that she had, in fact, a low grade, or less aggressive form of cancer, which was nevertheless dangerous.
Turning to a highly promising approach, the genome for her tumours was sequenced. Molecular drivers for her disease were identified that could be targeted with existing medications. Alfea was given a combination of two drugs that immediately began to take effect. Says Alfea, “my tumour kept shrinking and shrinking. I felt very relieved and thankful. Even though my treatment is experimental, it worked. My case has been part of a study my oncologist is doing and the findings could help other people.”
As the tumours began to disappear, Alfea was able to begin focusing on her recovery. She has undertaken physiotherapy to regain her balance and ability to walk, occupational therapy to build her strength for every day activities, and counselling. Alfea also continues with the medications, which have had side effects that include fatigue, mouth sores, and fevers. “Nevertheless,” she points out, “I've experienced big physical, emotional, and cognitive improvements and can do more and more on my own.”
Relieved that she no longer has to turn to family and friends for help with day-to-day tasks, she nevertheless appreciates their ongoing involvement in her healing process. “They have been there for me every step of the way,” she says, “checking in, asking how my day is going, helping me get to my appointments when I struggled to walk, and cheering me up. When things were at there most difficult, they’d say, ‘You’re doing great. Just keep going.’ They're the main reason why I didn't give up.”
Alfea is especially grateful for the ongoing support of her health care team, which includes members of the Pediatric department at CancerCare Manitoba and the Health Sciences Centre. She has also found inspiration from the bravery of other young people with cancer. “With their smiles and positive energy, they inspired me to keep pushing through challenging times and always be grateful for a new day.”
Alfea’s experiences have motivated her to study how she can help others. “I’d like to explore discoveries that will make a difference for people with cancer, including brain tumours. Another area I am interest in is Alzheimer’s.” Alfea has gratefully received a Childhood Cancer Canada Scholarship, which will help fund her important quest.