14 Years Old at Diagnosis
In hindsight, the first sign of Cassidy’s pituitary germinoma was evident years before diagnosis. As a seventh grader, Cassidy was short – not even “on-the-growth chart” short. Cassidy’s parents were concerned with her height, took her to a doctor, and followed up with a course of human growth hormone.
In early 2011, a year-and-a-half into Cassidy’s human growth hormone treatment, a regular visit to St. Louis Children’s Hospital brought Cassidy in front of a new doctor. The new doctor recommended an MRI. The MRI showed a small abnormality in Cassidy’s pituitary gland. Several follow-up MRIs showed no change in the pituitary, but in October, doctors saw enough change in the images that they ordered a spinal tap to test for abnormalities. The spinal fluid confirmed cancer. The abnormality that had shown up in Cassidy’s MRI was a pituitary germinoma. In addition, it was discovered Cassidy suffered from partial vision loss in her left eye and a related pituitary condition called diabetes insipidus.
“If only she had worn make-up,” her dad remarked. Cassidy, a young lady not interested in such things, wore no eye make-up. If she had closed her right eye to apply makeup, she’d have recognized the vision loss in her left eye much sooner. But fun, active, flying Cassidy (her small size, athleticism, and fearlessness made her a natural “flyer” for her junior high school cheer squad) had no time for make-up. Now she had to make time for surgery and 28 radiation treatments.
Cassidy was scheduled for brain surgery. In late October 2011, Cassidy’s surgeon gained access to the germinoma through her nose and sinus cavity. The toothpaste-ish textured tumor was biopsied, and radiation scheduled. Soon after surgery, Cassidy’s doctor checked on her vision. Thankfully, enough of the tumor had been removed to restore Cassidy’s vision in her left eye.
The prognosis was good. Cassidy stood a 90+% chance of a full recovery. The family chose not to dwell on the 10% and stay positive. Radiation treatments followed surgery, and Cassidy and her mother and father all made the 114-mile roundtrip journey to Siteman Cancer Center (part of St. Louis’s Barnes-Jewish/Washington University Medical facitilies) together every time. Every trip they made a point of laughing. They looked at the frequent trips as valuable family time.
Cassidy held up well during her radiation treatments, but her hair did not. Her dad found her one day in front of the mirror with a tear on her cheek and a volleyball-sized wad of hair in her hand. “It’s just hair,” she said. Her dad offered to shave his head, but she responded, “Your head looks funny enough as it is.” And that was that. Cassidy combed her hair over the bald spots and moved on to more important things.
The Spencers came up with a routine that helped all of them through the 28 radiation treatments. After each treatment Cassidy’s mom and dad would hug her and, “kiss the waffles,” which meant kiss Cassidy’s face where the mesh mask she wore (necessary for providing accurate delivery of radiation) had left its imprint or “waffles.” After kisses came the countdown: “21 to go.” By the time round 28 came and it was time to ring the brass bell at the hospital signaling the end of her treatment, Cassidy had inspired other radiation patients to stay positive. One older patient whose appointments often overlapped with Cassidy’s gave her a hug, a high-five and a thank-you porcelain angel for making her time in treatment positive.
It’s 2014 and Cassidy’s hair has grown back, but her pituitary gland will always need some outside help doing its job. Cassidy just brushes off the inconvenience of having to take supplements and undergo the occasional MRI screening. She’s got living to do. Three years post diagnosis, Cassidy is a high school senior looking forward to college and a teaching career, and she is cancer-free.
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