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A Survivor’s Guide to Brain Cancer

A 30-Year Brain Tumor Survivor and Her Cedars-Sinai Neurosurgeon Share Keys to Living Life to the Fullest

Sheri Saenz is enjoying everyday pleasures as a Laguna Niguel grandmother, crafting and camping with her granddaughter and grandson and vacationing with her husband of 34 years.

But 30 years ago, in 1992, Saenz received a brain cancer diagnosis that made her worry whether she would see her two daughters—let alone grandchildren—grow up. Much has changed since then.

“Sheri is doing absolutely spectacular,” said Keith L. Black, MD, chair of the Department of Neurosurgery at Cedars-Sinai and the surgeon who oversees Saenz’s care. “Every year when I see her back in clinic is a real delight for me. I see her on the schedule, and I'm looking at an MRI scan that is clear of tumor, and being able to walk into the room and tell her that the scan was perfect— that she's totally clear—that’s a blessing for my day.”

Her daughters were 1 and 2 years old when Saenz was diagnosed with an aggressive brain tumor that is usually deadly within five years. She was afraid her time as a mom would be cut short.

“I wrote letters to them,” Saenz said. “I wrote letters to them for their graduations and for each of their birthdays, in case I wasn’t there.”

Her tumor was successfully removed at a Northern California medical center. When it recurred a year later, Saenz wanted to stay close to her Southern California family during treatment. Her Bay Area surgeon told her the only other doctor he would trust with her care was Black.

Black and his team removed Saenz’s second tumor, which turned out to be a less-aggressive type than the first, in 2003, and operated again in 2007 when her MRI scans showed that the tumor had again recurred. This time, they followed up with chemotherapy and a novel treatment combination Black had been working on in his research lab.

The treatment was a resounding success. “We continue to monitor Sheri and she hasn’t had any evidence of any recurrence, the rising of the ugly head of the tumor again, since 2007,” said Black, who estimates he has removed as many as 7,000 brain tumors.

How did she keep going through setback after setback?

“It was tough, but I had such faith in Dr. Black,” Saenz said. “When I met him, he grabbed my hands and said, ‘Sheri, I want to help you.’ And I have a strong husband. I have a strong mother and father and strong kids and grandkids, all wrapped up together, and that’s very important.”

Saenz and Black offered additional advice for those facing a brain cancer diagnosis.

Seek the best possible care. “You need a good surgical team that specializes in removal of brain tumors,” said Black. “At Cedars-Sinai, even our brain tumor surgeons are specialized in particular types of brain tumors.” Black also stressed the importance of a comprehensive care team offering clinical trials and innovative treatments. “Our tumor board meets every week to review cases and come up with treatment plans that give our patients the best quality of life and best long-term outcome, even with a devastating diagnosis like an aggressive brain tumor,” Black said.

Avoid “doomscrolling.” “If you go online, you can read a lot of horrific things about your chances of surviving a brain tumor,” Black said. “What Sheri teaches us is that not every patient fits into the same bucket. Every tumor is going to respond differently. There's no guarantee, but we do know that in significant numbers of patients, we can achieve long-term survival with good quality of life. Sheri is a perfect example.”

Be a good patient. Saenz took an active role in her fight against brain cancer. “I exercised. I ate right and I followed the doctor's orders and I did everything that the doctor asked me to do,” she said. “I was a good patient.”

Don’t give up. Patients who have been treated for brain tumors are monitored regularly for recurrence, and Black said that, as in Saenz’s case, tumors can come back. “That doesn't mean that is the end,” Black said. “We know that if we are aggressive, and we treat those areas that we see that might be coming back, there's a very good possibility that we can keep that tumor in check for a very long time.”

Saenz’s husband, Sean Saenz, said his wife’s fighting spirit has taught him strength and perseverance and strengthened their family and their marriage. “She’s the reason I get out of bed every day, because she’s my world,” he said. “And we’re here together because of Dr. Black and his team, who we’ve been seeing for 30 years, saving Sheri’s life.”

Read more on the Cedars-Sinai Blog: Standing Up to Stage 4 Breast Cancer