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Pathways to Discovery: Summer 2011

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Couple Goes the Extra Mile for Brain Cancer Research

It’s scary when you’re walking around and interacting with people, and you have no memory of it.
Laura Roman

“Life is good” is the mantra that Brian Roman, PhD, assistant professor of radiology, and his wife, Laura, adopted to positively deal with her brain and spinal cancer. Laura, a school psychologist, is being treated for pilocytic astrocytoma, a rare brain tumor that, in her case, has dispersed throughout her cerebral spinal fluid space making it “exceptionally difficult to treat,” according to M. Kelly Nicholas, MD, PhD, assistant professor of neurology and director of the Neuro-oncology Program at UChicago.

The Romans told Dr. Nicholas that they preferred an aggressive treatment strategy instead of waiting to see what would happen. The challenge was finding the right treatment. Most available therapies were designed to work on more aggressive cancers. Laura’s cancer is slow-growing. Dr. Nicholas presented Laura’s case to his colleagues in the Brain Tumor Center, a group of doctors from neurosurgery, radiation oncology, neuro-oncology, neuroradiology, and neuropathology.

“He was so thorough in planning my treatment,” Laura said. “He lets you know when he consults with other physicians to compare strategies and see if they agree with the choice of course. As a school psychologist, it fit with my philosophy of problem-solving and helped me feel more confident in those decisions.”

Under Steven Chmura, MD, PhD, assistant professor of radiation and cellular oncology, Laura underwent cranio-spinal radiation therapy for 6 weeks, but in the following months began to intermittently experience complications, the most alarming of which were episodes of amnesia.

“It’s scary when you’re walking around and interacting with people, and you have no memory of it,” she said.

Presently, Laura is undergoing chemotherapy treatment with an angiogenesis inhibitor called bevacizumab that targets blood vessel growth. It appears to be helping with the leaky blood vessels that may have contributed to her complications. Her tumor appears to be stable. Dr. Nicholas said, “The future is bright for Laura.”

Team Roman
Because of the excellent care Laura has received, the couple said they decided to express their gratitude through Dr. Roman’s participation in the “Fleet Feet Sports Soldier Field 10 Mile” run in May.

“We owe a tremendous debt of gratitude to this group and had been searching for ways to give back to them and other patients,” Dr. Roman said. “We wanted to raise public awareness about the program and the great skill and care patients receive.”

“Team Roman” has raised more than $6,700 in donations to benefit the Brain Tumor Center at UChicago. The couple said the run is a starting point for more fundraising initiatives that they plan to undertake.

The Brain Tumor Center
Treating brain cancer requires a team of doctors who are experts in many different areas. For example, a brain cancer patient will generally need a neurosurgeon, radiation oncologist, oncologist, neurologist, neuropathologist, neuroradiologist, and a doctor who can coordinate all of the treatment, as well as refer the patient to ancillary services, such as physical, occupational, speech, and cognitive therapies.

“At UChicago, we have coined the phrase ‘Brain Tumor Center’ around which all of these activities happen, but it’s really a virtual space in which we all work,” said Dr. Nicholas.

The Brain Tumor Center is a collaborative group that meets on a weekly basis to discuss all relevant cases, exchange information, and talk about clinical trials that are open. UChicago offers clinical trials for malignant brain tumors, at diagnosis and recurrence, and a variety of rare tumors.

Oncology nurse Jean Arzbaecher, RN, coordinates the clinical activities for the center and runs a monthly support group for patients with brain cancer in the community.

“Dr. Nicholas and Jean are great,” Laura said. “We have such confidence in them.”

Visit chicagobraintumors.org for more information about the Brain Tumor Center.