Health & Wellness

Woman mistakes brain tumor for migraine after unknowingly experiencing seizure

In 2011, Frances Paine was studying for medical school exams and under stress. Her migraines increased in severity and intensity. But it was a minute of silence that caused her family to worry about her health.

Paine was chatting with her mother and tried responding, but found she couldn’t speak.

Sixty seconds ticked by and Paine, then a 28-year-old student at Warwick Medical School in Coventry, U.K., could not utter one word.

While her family panicked, Paine believed she experience an aura — a sensory disturbance that occurred with some migraines.

Frances Paine
Frances Paine on the morning after surgery to remove a brain tumor.

She’d had mild auras in the past and they were never bothersome. She sometimes smelled cheese or suddenly loathed strong odors, such as coffee.

“It was that the aura was so different. But I didn't worry about it and so wasn't troubled about seeing a [doctor],” she told TODAY via email. “I thought it was simply natural progression.”

Paine’s family urged her to see a doctor. When she mentioned the loss of speech, he sent her to a neurologist who ordered an MRI.

It found a large mass in her frontal left parietal region.

That minute where she couldn’t speak? That was likely a seizure, not an aura.

“The presenting complaint of brain tumors is often a first seizure — but subtle ones like mine could easily have been missed. I myself would have simply dismissed it but my [doctor] was obviously clued in to these things,” she said.

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A scan revealed it was a stage 2 glioma, a slow-growing tumor that grows on the glia cells in the brain.

Even though stage 2 tumors grow slowly, if doctors can’t remove it — such as in Paine’s case — it can evolve to a stage 3 or stage 4, which is the aggressive neuroblastoma.

Paine knows her tumor shortened her life. She may only have a decade of life left, or as many as three.

“I have become a more understanding person because of my experiences,” said Paine. “I consider myself lucky that I have been given the time that I have.”

The day after she finished her exams in 2013, doctors at Addenbrooke’s Hospital in Cambridge removed most of her tumor in a seven-hour surgery.

She experienced two seizures during the surgery — a type where the patient remains awake for part of it to assure no damage is done to specific areas, such as the language center.

Frances Paine
Eight months after surgery, Frances Paine ran her first marathon.

Afterward, she struggled with infections that landed her back in the hospital. Paine eventually developed epilepsy.

While some might read Paine’s story and worry that their own headaches represent a sign of something worse, doctors say that’s the wrong message to take from it.

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Brain tumors are relatively uncommon.

Dr. Linda Liau, director of the UCLA Brain Tumor Program said that in the United States, between 20,000 to 25,000 people annually will be diagnosed with a primary brain tumor — one that comes from the brain cells and not a cancer in a different part of the body.

While headaches can be a sign of a brain tumor — especially new, constant pain that is worse in the morning — Dr. Glen Stevens said people shouldn’t panic.

“A tumor is uncommon and headaches are common,” said the section head of adult neuro-oncology at Cleveland Clinic.

Dr. Tesha Montheith, a migraine expert and member of the American Academy of Neurology, agreed that more people experience migraines — about 12 percent of the U.S. population — than tumors.

Migraines sometimes include auras that involve being unable to speak, but people shouldn’t jump to conclusions.

“A migraine is a very common and very disabling neurological condition that is underdiagnosed and undertreated,” she said. “A brain tumor would not be a cause of migraines but can trigger worsening migraines or mimic them.”

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New seizures in adults are often a sign of something problematic, said John Kuo, director of the Comprehensive Brain Tumor Program at University of Wisconsin School of Medicine at Public Health.

“If an adult has never had a seizure before and they come in with a seizure we are very worried that there is something on the brain that wasn’t there before,” he said.

But persistent, worsening symptoms could be a red flag.

“Bad things always get worse,” said Stevens. “Clearly if you see progressive symptoms you should see a doctor.”

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Now an ER doctor at Addenbrooke’s Hospital, Paine undergoes regular MRIs. If doctors notice a change they’ll reevaluate her treatment, she said.

Instead of worrying, she’s training for the London Marathon to raise money for brain tumor research.

“Running a marathon is something of a 'bucket list' item for me. I want to be as healthy as I can to enjoy the life and time I do have left.”

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