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After Brain Cancer Battle, Orange County Resident Picks Up Active Life Where She Left Off

The stage 4 central nervous system lymphoma, which struck last June, is in remission after Cedars-Sinai doctors take quick action

Los Angeles - June 3, 2013 – Westminster resident Betty Hayden loves to work in her yard and looks forward to traveling on weekends to dog shows with her daughter. But the retired school employee's active lifestyle came to a halt last June with the sudden appearance of aggressive brain tumors.

After the diagnosis, Hayden's daughter, Tammy Porter, expected doctors to quickly create a coordinated treatment plan. When they didn't, she contacted brain cancer specialists at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, where Hayden was evaluated and hospitalized within days. A year later, the cancer is in remission and Hayden is back in action, tending to her yard a couple of hours a day.

“In my opinion, they saved my mom’s life because they worked so fast to get us in,” said Porter, who first noticed changes in Hayden’s behavior during a weekend dog show in Ventura.

“She was going to bed really early, which isn’t like her,” Porter said.  ”My mom can run circles around everyone else, but she was going to bed at 7 o’clock and sleeping a lot. She just wasn’t 100 percent herself. She was walking a little to the left, and I noticed that when she was talking, she sometimes would throw in a word that was kind of out of left field,” said Porter, who looks out for her mom who lives alone after being widowed about 10 years ago. They made an appointment for Hayden to see her doctor as soon as they got home.

Hayden’s behavior at the brief doctor’s visit was normal and blood tests were negative. But, Porter, convinced something wasn’t right, asked if a brain scan could be done.

“After the CAT scan, I got a call from the doctor, saying, ‘Your mom has two masses in her brain. You need to get to an emergency department ASAP,” Porter said, adding that her mother, 72, has always been fit, healthy and active. A biopsy found that the masses in her brain were cancerous.

“That was just horrible. I got the call and sat down with her and told her. … It’s amazing how something you don’t even know about just all of a sudden changes your life,” Porter said.

Hayden said the doctor seemed indifferent: “I said, ‘Now what do we do?’ And the doctor said, ‘We’re finished. You have to go see another doctor.’”

But Porter, believing her mother needed medical attention sooner rather than later, grew frustrated with the doctors’ apparent lack of interest, urgency and follow-up. As she tried desperately to reach unavailable doctors, she asked a friend to search the Internet for other options. The name of Keith L. Black, MD, chair of the Department of Neurosurgery at Cedars-Sinai, came up, and Porter sent an email to James Villalobos, RN, program development coordinator, in the department.

“It was about 9 o’clock on a Saturday night and I emailed Dr. Black’s office, not expecting, of course, to hear from them until Monday. But that’s when James called back. He called me back that night, at 9 o’clock. I was amazed,” Porter recalled, adding that she was even more impressed when Villalobos arranged coordinated consultations at Cedars-Sinai a few days later.

She and her mother met with neurosurgeon Chirag Patil, MD, director of the Center for Neurosurgical Outcomes Research, and neuro-oncologist Jeremy Rudnick, MD, a brain cancer expert in the Department of Neurology and the Department of Neurosurgery. Because Hayden’s cancer was not amenable to surgery, Rudnick took the lead.

“He looked at her MRIs and started telling us about this disease,” Porter recalled. “He said, ‘I’d like to get you in right now. This is a fast-growing cancer.’ He showed us her MRI pictures. This was the first time we had seen them. Her brain center line was totally out of skew. Her brain had so much swelling because of the tumors it’s amazing she didn’t have more side effects.”

Rudnick said Hayden’s cancer, central nervous system lymphoma, a type of non-Hodgkin lymphoma, is so rare that a general hospital may see a case only once every five years; Cedars-Sinai doctors treat 10 or 20 patients a year. It’s considered a stage 4 lymphoma, one of the most aggressive forms of the disease.

“With this disease, we can see a doubling of tumor in just weeks. Betty was declining quickly but she and her daughter weren’t getting the information or help they needed. The day after we saw her we had her in the hospital getting high-dose IV chemotherapy,” Rudnick said, adding that Cedars-Sinai has several treatment options for the disease, including an aggressive and potentially curative high-dose chemotherapy/stem cell transplant protocol.

Hayden underwent a more standard regimen: a weeklong hospital stay for chemotherapy every other week for four or five months.

“If she had gone much longer without treatment, I don’t know that she would have survived. But she responded beautifully and her disease is in remission. She had a response in all the tumors and right now her MRIs are completely clean and clear. She’s doing remarkably well, pruning the rose bushes and going to dog shows,” Rudnick said. “For me, that’s incredibly rewarding.”