Two years ago, a 21-year-old Baylor student from Plano learned she had a brain tumor. Taylor Roth thought she had only a year to live. But new technology at UT Southwestern showed her prognoses was actually much better. She not only returned to school, but made it all the way to TV’s Jeopardy!
About half way through freshman year, Taylor Roth started having trouble doing everyday things. Like walking to classes on campus. She ignored the symptoms for a while, but then an MRI showed a mass, about the size of a golf ball, in her brain stem. That’s the part of the brain just above the spinal cord that regulates everything from blood pressure and balance to breathing.
“At first it was just shock,” she says. “This is something that is so rare and I’m so young, I really didn’t think when this started happening that it was going to be something that serious.”
Any brain tumor is serious. But the different types have very different prognoses. The most common is the glioma – which can either be fast or slow growing. Odds of survival with a fast growing glioma are extremely low.
Making The Diagnosis:
Usually in a case like this, doctors perform a biopsy – they insert a needle and take a tiny piece of tissue to analyze. But because of the location of the growth in Taylor's brain, a biopsy was too risky.
Dr. Elizabeth Maher is associate professor of internal medicine and neurology at UT Southwestern and has been working with Taylor for two years. She decided to use a new scanning technology developed at UT Southwestern to try and identify whether Taylor’s tumor was a fast growing – high grade – glioma, or a low grade glioma.
The scan is done in a traditional MRI machine, but instead of looking at the physical nature of the tumor, doctors analyze the chemicals. In this case, doctors would look for a very particular gene mutation associated with low grade gliomas. This gene makes enzymes that are critical to fueling cancer cells, and the process creates a by-product – almost like a trail of breadcrumbs – that researchers can look for. These breadcrumbs are called 2-hydroxyglucarate (2HG for short). Maher knew if she could find 2HG, Taylor’s tumor would be the slow growing type, and instead of an estimated year to live, she could have decades.
After the very first scan, Maher says it was obvious Taylor had 2HG, and therefore a low-grade glioma. Since treatments, such as radiation and chemotherapy, work best for high grade gliomas (which are fast-growing), Maher is instead tracking Taylor’s 2HG levels to monitor the tumor for any signs of change. She says that for the past two years, Taylor's levels have been stable.
America's Favorite Quiz Show:
Since middle school, Taylor says she's had a passion for Jeopardy! and has tried out several times. But it wasn't until last year after being flown to New Orleans for an audition and personality interview that she finally made it.
Last month, Taylor traveled to Los Angeles to meet Alex Trebek and the other competitors for the College Championship. And here’s the thing, Taylor didn’t tell anyone at Jeopardy! about her tumor.
“I just wanted to enjoy the experience,” she says, "I would do it again in a heartbeat."
Taylor says going on Jeopardy! was a way of saying she can still liver her life, despite everything that's happened. You can watch the episode of Jeopardy! featuring Taylor on Wednesday, May 8th.
Brain Tumor Facts:
- More than 196,000 people in the U.S. are diagnosed with a brain tumor each year.
- There are more than 100 types of brain tumors.
- The glioma is one of the most common. A glioma is a tumor that grows from a glial cell, which is a supportive cell in the brain. A glioma is given a grade (a measure of how much the tumor appears like normal brain tissue) from I to IV (one to four) based how likely they are to grow quickly. A lower grade glioma generally has better prognoses than a high grade glioma.
- Brain stem gliomas occur almost exclusively in children. In the U.S., brain stem gliomas make up about 2 percent of all brain tumors in adults and about 10 percent to 15 percent of all childhood brain tumors.
- Most brain stem gliomas cannot be surgically removed because their location makes such a procedure too risky.
- Brain stem gliomas that are high-grade are generally treated with chemotherapy and/or radiation therapy.
- Brain tumors are the second-leading cause of cancer deaths in children.
- There were more than 400 cases of brainstem gliomas in children per year in the U.S. during 2004-2008.
This Saturday, May 11th is North Texas' Head for the Cure 5K Race in Plano. Proceeds from the event benefit the Brain Tumor Trials Collaborative (BTTC) through the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center and the Legacy Brain Foundation in North Texas.