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Interdisciplinary Approach Leads to New Outlook in Life for One

By: Jonathan Carothers

Monday June 20, 2011

Thibodaux, LA, June 13, 2011 –Cassandra Richard of Morgan City visited her family physician for a sinus infection in June 2008. During the evaluation Richard mentioned to her physician that she had been experiencing sensations like pins and needles in her left foot for about two months, and they kept getting more frequent and lasting longer.

Richard was advised to see a neurologist. She had an electromyography, or EMG, which involves testing the electrical activity of muscles and may aid with the diagnosis of nerve compression or injury. After review, she was sent to get a spinal magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) because of concerns in her spine. Two weeks later she was called to get an MRI of the head and neck and a repeat of the original test with contrast. 

After getting the results of the MRI, Richard was told she had a tumor and that it was cancerous. She would be scheduled to follow up with Dr. Deepak Awasthi, neurosurgeon at Thibodaux Regional Medical Center.

“I was told it was going to happen fast and quick and to let my family know,” Richard said. “I saw Dr. Awasthi early the following Monday. He looked at the same images and in his experience didn’t think it was cancer, but wouldn’t know for sure until the biopsy.” 

Richard was diagnosed with a non-cancerous ependymoma. Ependymoma tumors at the end of the spinal cord are often large, and treatment may be complicated by the extensive system of nerves in that area. She was given the option to do nothing, have surgery or have radiation around the tumor. Richard chose to have the tumor removed with surgery. 

“Usually non-cancerous tumors aren't particularly worrisome,” said Dr. Awasthi. “However, that's not necessarily the case with your spinal cord, where a spinal tumor or a growth of any kind can impinge on your nerves, leading to pain, neurological problems and sometimes paralysis.” 

A spinal tumor, whether cancerous or not, can threaten life and cause permanent disability. Yet advances in spinal tumor treatment offer more options than ever before.  If small tumors are non-cancerous and aren't growing or pressing on surrounding tissues, watching them carefully may be a reasonable option.

Surgery is often the first step in treating tumors, and newer techniques and instruments allow neurosurgeons at Thibodaux Regional Medical Center to reach tumors that were once inaccessible. The high-powered microscopes used in microsurgery make it easier to distinguish tumors from healthy tissue. Doctors also can test different nerves during surgery with electrodes, thus minimizing nerve damage.  Even with advances in surgery, not all tumors can be removed completely, but the specialists at Thibodaux Regional Medical Center were able to remove Richard’s tumor. 

The path has not always been an easy one for Richard. After initially getting the good news that she was cancer free, she was told that there was nerve damage.  “I opened my eyes and the first thing I asked is if I had cancer,” commented Richard, “They said no, but you do have some nerve damage. I had no feeling from the naval down. I was prepared for cancer, but did not prepare for everything else.” 

Richard spent six weeks in inpatient rehabilitation at Thibodaux Regional to be able to leave using a walker and walking on her own about 7-8 months later. She now has about 30-40 percent of the feeling back and still has some balance problems. 

“I was in rehab for a time after and don’t think I could have been at a better place, because I received top notch care,” said Richard. “All of the people in the rehab unit became like my family. They were there with me physically and emotionally. They knew how to make it better. The whole staff in the rehab department was wonderful.” 

It’s been a long road for Richard. She has been tumor free for 3 years and has to have an MRI every year to make sure the tumor does not return. At Thibodaux Regional, the tightly knit medical community means physicians can plan care together and discuss cases as a team. Patients then have the advantage of a coordinated effort to help remove tumors and help to ensure they never return. 

“It was a very traumatic, life-altering experience. It made me look at my life a whole new way and changed me as a person in a good way,” said Richard. “I don’t have cancer and can walk on my own now, so it’s a good day.” 

About Thibodaux Regional Medical CenterThibodaux Regional Medical Center, a 185-bed acute care facility, provides inpatient and outpatient care for the people of Lafourche and seven surrounding parishes. Highly specialized services offered include Heart Surgery, Medical and Radiation Oncology, Neurology, Neurosurgery, Orthopedic Surgery, Sports Medicine, Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery, General, Laparoscopic, and Bariatric Surgery, Pulmonology, Rheumatology, Women’s Services, Sleep Disorders, Behavioral Health, and Inpatient and Outpatient Physical Rehabilitation Services.  

Nationally recognized for quality care and service, Thibodaux Regional has been named a Distinguished Hospital by J.D. Power and Associates and has been honored with the Press Ganey Summit Award for high levels of patient satisfaction. In 2009, Thibodaux Regional received the Outstanding Achievement Award from the American College of Surgeons Commission on Cancer for the second time and is the only hospital in Louisiana to do so.