Sasha Cano thought she was dreaming: she woke up in an ambulance and was told that she was being taken to the emergency room.
"When they told me I had had a seizure, I didn't believe them," Cano recalls, who in December 2003, awoke from her sleep feeling "claustrophobic" and then walked into her parents living room where she had a grand mal seizure.
Cano was taken to John Muir Hospital in Walnut Creek, Calif. where doctors thought she was suffering from encephalitis — inflammation of the brain caused by a virus — and was given antibiotics. The medication did not reduce the swelling in her brain, so other tests were taken.
Cano was given a series of tests, including a CAT scan, MRI and brain biopsy, to determine the cause of her seizure. The next day, she was told she had a brain tumor, which the doctors believed was a type known as a Glioma.
"All I wanted to know was, 'So how do we fix it?'" Cano remembers, who is now 32-years-old and resides in Clayton, Calif.
Cano was sent to UCSF Medical Center, one of the top hospitals in the nation in neurology and neurosurgery with the largest brain tumor treatment program in the United States. She visited Dr. Mitchel Berger, who is internationally renowned for his expertise in treating brain and spinal cord tumors.
Berger told Cano that she had a Grade III anaplastic astrocytoma, an advanced brain tumor, which was located under a major artery in her brain's frontal and temporal lobes the areas of the brain that play a part in language, memory, movement and sensory brain function.
To help preserve these functions, Berger recommended an advanced surgical technique called brain mapping. Developed at UCSF, this approach uses three-dimensional imaging of the brain, which enables surgeons to avoid areas of the brain that control cognitive function, while removing as much of the tumor as possible.
During part of the surgery, Cano was awake and asked to identify certain images on a computer screen to stimulate functional areas of her brain near the tumor. This allowed Berger to map out his path to a successful surgery while minimizing impact on Cano's healthy, vital tissue.
Just three days after surgery, Cano was released from the hospital and able to return home. "I was a little swollen and black and blue, but otherwise feeling completely normal. I noticed that my memory was affected a little, but that has improved and keeps getting better," says Cano, who has become a fan of crossword puzzles, which she claims helps to sharpen her memory.
Cano then had seven weeks of radiation therapy and several months of chemotherapy. And although Berger was able to remove 90 to 95 percent of her tumor during surgery, a second, smaller and well-defined tumor reoccurred.
Berger then recommended an advanced form of radiation therapy, called the Gamma Knife. This high-tech tool directs high doses of radiation at its target with pinpoint accuracy so that only the tumor is destroyed, sparing surrounding healthy tissue.
But Cano's tumor was resistant. In August 2005, she underwent a second brain mapping surgery. Berger was able to completely remove her tumor. And now, one year later, Cano's tumor has not recurred. Every three months, she visits UCSF to have a MRI to check for signs of new growth.
"Over the years, I've really gotten to know everyone at UCSF and they are like family to me now," says Cano. "Everyone who has taken care of me is so fabulous and supportive. I really believe that this has helped me to stay positive and healthy."
Story written in July 2006.
Abby Sinnott is a freelance writer in San Francisco.