Lucy Garcia knew something was wrong when she woke up at 4 a.m. on Nov. 11. The room was spinning and spinning, she said. Her left hand was also numb.
The 35-year-old mom wasn't any better three hours later. Her husband, Jason Garcia, encouraged her to go to a stand-alone emergency room in Cedar Park to get checked out.
That emergency room staff thought it was probably just vertigo, but because Lucy Garcia had had numbness in her left hand, they did a CT scan.
The CT scan revealed an abnormality, but without an MRI, which that emergency room didn't have, doctors couldn't tell if it was a stroke or a tumor.
Garcia was sent by ambulance to St. David's Medical Center in Austin.
"I didn't like the attention," Garcia remembered thinking. "This can't be real. I feel fine."
Another CT scan and an MRI later, Garcia received the news that she had a brain tumor in her temporal lobe.
Her symptoms — vertigo and numbness, both of which went away — had nothing to do with the tumor, but they helped doctors find the tumor early.
"It was so shocking," Garcia said. "Even talking about it now, it doesn't seem real. It seems like an out-of-body experience."
She had a grade 2 glioma tumor called an astrocytoma, which was determined to be slow growing. It was 3 centimeters by 3 centimeters, "a decent size," said Dr. Hari Tumu, her neurosurgeon at St. David's.
"We don't understand why some people get it and others don't," Tumu said. It isn't genetic.
About 25,000 people a year are diagnosed with brain cancer. Five-year survival rates vary by the type of cancer and a patient's age. For Garcia's type and age, the survival rate is 73%. By age 55, it's 26%.
Most of the time, these tumors aren't caught until they are really large and cause symptoms, Tumu said.
Symptoms can include headache. nausea or vomiting, numbness in the leg or arm or weakness, seizures or loss of consciousness, change in personality, balance problems, or blurred vision.
Wide awake and helping doctors
On Jan. 12, Tumu removed the tumor. A new scan found a small part of the tumor remained. Rather than wait and see if it would grow, he removed that on Jan. 17.
During the surgeries, Tumu kept Garcia awake because the tumor was in a part of the brain that controls speech. He had her count backwards and recognize pictures and say what those pictures were as he was cutting out the tumor to make sure he was not hitting an area that would impact speech.
Garcia was then given a medication to help her forget the experience of the surgery that she was awake for.
It worked. She only remembers being woken up after the surgery.
Now, Garcia has a gap in her brain where the tumor once sat. She'll have an MRI every three months to make sure it does not grow back. She doesn't have any speech deficits.
"She'll need some surveillance for the rest of her life," Tumu said, but Garcia was lucky to catch this at an early age. Typically, these are caught much later on when they are grade 4 (aggressive) and after someone is 60 or older, Tumu said.
Reasons for hope
Better MRIs are allowing doctors to see these tumors earlier, he said. Better anesthesia means it's safer to do surgeries while people are awake to minimize the damage, and new instruments and techniques allow for faster, safer and more minimally invasive ways to remove tumors, Tumu said.
"Patients are living longer, and year after year there's better research," he said.
In addition to surgery, the more aggressive tumors get treated with chemotherapy, radiation and even gene therapy that uses a virus to infect the tumor, he said.
A brain tumor doesn't have to be a life-ending diagnosis.
"I don't want patients to throw in the towel, because I'm certainly not going to stop fighting for them," Tumu said.
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This experience has taught Garcia to not discount any symptom and to not wait to do things.
"I'm a planner," she said. "I used to always be really cautious. ... I used to put things off to be more prepared for them financially."
This month, the Garcias are taking their children to Disney World.
"I want to get as much done as soon as possible," she said.
This article originally appeared on Austin American-Statesman: Odd symptoms help doctors catch Austin woman's brain cancer early