Rare tumor interrupts girl’s basketball career
The Arizona Republic
Jul. 14, 2007 09:31 AM
Brittani Spight was the epitome of a healthy teenager.
She rarely missed school due to illness and was in top physical condition. As a member of the Desert Ridge High School basketball team, she spent last summer sweating through 6 a.m. workouts and playing games in the afternoons, determined not to lose her starting guard position to an underclassman. Despite an active lifestyle, she had never broken a bone or suffered an injury requiring an X-ray. All that changed last fall.
Spight, 17, was diagnosed with a rare bone tumor condition called chordoma that threatened her life. Although it was not cancerous, the grapefruit-sized tumor occupied more than half the diameter of her chest, displaced vital organs and put pressure on her spinal cord. She was in constant pain and lost feeling in her legs.
“I would play through the pain and after the games I just asked my friends to go slower over the speed bumps,” said Spight, who is preparing for her senior year.
Spight initially visited her doctor in fall 2006, complaining of a sharp pain between her shoulders that sometimes lasted all day and night. After reviewing an X-ray and MRI, doctors decided to operate on her back thinking she had a cyst. However, during surgery, doctors realized they were dealing with something much more serious and rare.
The exact cause of chordoma is unknown, but it develops from the notochord, embryonic cells that eventually form the vertebrae. The tumor is not associated with trauma, genetics, diet, environmental conditions, medical conditions or use of medication and supplements, according to research.
“We thought maybe she pulled a muscle or had a sports injury that would heal,” said Spight’s mother, Tami. “When they told us it was a tumor, I got upset because I automatically thought it was cancerous and couldn’t understand how she got it.”
The tumor grows slowly, but can become more aggressive and intrusive over time. The type and severity of symptoms depend on the location of the tumor along the spine. The American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons reports most tumors develop at the base of the spine, in the tailbone or at the base of the skull.
Tumors like Spight’s occurring in the thoracic spine (middle of the back) are extremely rare. They can cause pain in the area of tumor and symptoms similar to a slipped or herniated disk due to the pressure on nerves.
Benched by a tumor
Doctors were not sure how long the bone tumor had been growing, but restricted Spight’s physical activity. Since her life once revolved around basketball, she had to find another outlet and a new group of friends.
“It was so hard to watch games because you wanted to be out there,” Spight said. Instead, she used her extra time to pursue another interest, fashion. In the spring, she helped organize her school’s annual prom fashion show that raised $670 for the Relay for Life campaign. She was involved in every aspect of the show including writing the commentary, securing the models, selecting the music and designing the sets and wardrobe.
“It really helped keep my mind off it (the tumor) because there was nothing else to think about but the show,” said Spight, who walked the runway wearing a traditional wedding dress she redesigned. Her teachers were impressed with how she made every effort not to miss school and never used her illness as an excuse.
“You could never tell she had a large tumor in her back,” said Joan Henry, the Fashion Club’s adviser. “She always had a smile on her face and the only sign she ever showed was that she was a little tired sometimes.”
Spight credits her family, friends and faith for getting her through.
Treatment isn’t easy
Treatment of chordoma is difficult because it develops next to critical structures. Spight’s tumor engulfed her aorta, applied pressure to her spinal cord, and displaced her heart and lungs. The tumor, measuring 4 inches high and 3 inches wide, pushed her heart forward and lungs upward.
The preferred treatment is surgery followed by radiation. However, medical reports claim chemotherapy is largely ineffective and an operation is risky since the surgeon must remove the tumor and a margin of normal tissue around it, which can result in a loss of neurological function.
Dr. Cheryl Ann Palmer, a professor of neurology at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, reports only half of patients survive the first five years following the operation.
In the past eight months, Spight underwent three operations at Phoenix Children’s Hospital. First doctors went in to remove what they thought was a cyst in fall 2006. Then in February, neurosurgeon Daniel Lieberman performed an emergency laminectomy to relieve pressure on her spinal cord and to remove part of the tumor. He inserted eight screws and two 10-inch rods to support the spine and prevent it from caving in. Four months later, Lieberman and cardiothoracic surgeon Michael Teodori performed a thoracotomy to remove the bulk of the tumor.
The delay in the last life-saving operation was due in large part to the difficulty of finding a surgeon willing to operate because of the risk.
“We had to retract her heart, retract her lungs, dissect the tumor and remove four of the vertebrae . . . it was like having four high-risk surgeries all at the same time,” Lieberman said.
Although the risk of developing complications was well above 75 percent, Lieberman declared the operation an outstanding success because they removed 99.9 percent of the tumor with the only residual complication being a temporary loss of feeling and usage in her left leg.
Returning to Normalcy
A month after the surgery, Spight is returning to her active lifestyle of going out with her friends, spending time with her boyfriend and playing with her cousins. She is able to walk, climb stairs and drive. However, she does not plan to resume playing basketball for fear of aggravating her spine. The only sign of her life-threatening illness is a draining tube that rests at her side and an occasional slow-paced movement.
Although young people respond better to treatment than their older counterparts, doctors were impressed with her resilience and rapid recovery rate.
“What’s amazing is she was asking to play volleyball and skateboard less than a week after the operation . . . and she was on almost no pain medications,” Lieberman said.
Spight will have to take a month and a half off from school to attend radiation treatment at Loma Linda University Medical Center in California. It is one of five treatment centers in the nation offering specialized proton radiation, which offers precision accuracy to minimize adverse side effects.
Despite her difficult journey, she’s not bitter.
“I appreciate each day. It made me stronger and more confident in myself . . .Hopefully I can inspire others who are going through similar situations.
By all accounts Brittani could have easily given up, but despite the significant chain of events she’s had to deal with, Brittani pressed on to complete her senior year and graduated with a 3.500GPA after missing 1/2 the school year due to her illness. While most kids her age were focusing on summer vacation, Brittani began chemotherapy treatment 1 week after graduation.
Brittani is currently enrolled in college where she will begin her Freshman year in the fall to study Fashion Merchandising. Brittani will attend college concurrently while undergoing rounds of chemotherapy. Brit’s mom says, “She is the epitome of strength and determination. She lives life with a no limits attitude and makes no excuses. She strives for more everyday and is driven to succeed. She is a true inspiration to all who have come to know her”.
Her myspace page reads – “Nothings changed about me, I can still do the things I always did before I’m just rolling in a chair now. I’m just thankful to be alive
We don’t know what the future holds for her as she battles this life-threatening illness, but our hope is not in what the doctors are saying, the way things look or even her illness itself. Our hope is in the God that we serve! We have partnered with people Nationwide from California to New York to Florida, to Canada, to Russia to Italy in fervent prayer that He will restore her life and heal her totally. There is already evidence in His works in that she isn’t “sickly” like the doctors expect her to be. She is the picture of health and continues to show “no symptoms” of this dangerous illness they say is affecting her.
In sharing her story, our desire is that her story may help inspire others no matter what their situation or circumstance. Our lives will never be the same as they were before her illness and we Thank God for that.