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Mom, 47, had 'excruciating' headaches, nausea. They were signs of brain cancer

“It never occurred to me to call in sick," she tells TODAY.com.
/ Source: TODAY

Kate White, 47, is known as a powerhouse in her Grand Blanc, Michigan community.

And when the school district media specialist, ice cream shop owner, real estate broker, yoga enthusiast and mom of three started experiencing severe headaches in May 2019, White tells TODAY.com that she simply tried to push through.

"I remember thinking, I only have nine more days of work, just go to work, get your stuff done and it’ll be summer break," she says. "It never occurred to me to call in sick. Well, there were other plans for me that day." 

White, who also gets migraine attacks, tried to manage her headaches with the medications she usually took. They would get better for a while, but the medication "would start wearing off by the end of the day, and I'd be in excruciating pain again," White says.

The pattern of what White calls "debilitating migraines" continued for about a week — until a coworker noticed that White seemed off and insisted on taking her home. Once she made it home, White’s pain mounted and she became nauseous.

"I tried to push it, and there was just no pushing through anymore," White says. "My body was telling me it was time to be done. It was time to rest."

By the time her husband, Rick, came home, she was curled up in pain on the bathroom floor, so he called 911. An ambulance rushed White to a local hospital where a CT scan revealed a mass in her brain.

From there, the situation escalated quickly.

White was treated for severe swelling in the brain followed by awake surgery.

White was transferred to Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit, at which point she was unresponsive.

"When I met (White), not to be overly dramatic about it, but she was nearly comatose," Dr. Adam Robin, a neurosurgeon at Henry Ford Hospital, tells TODAY.com. "She had just had a series of profound seizures," he recalls.

People with brain tumors often show symptoms like those White had, such as headaches and nausea, as well as numbness, tingling, weakness and issues with balance, Robin says. And as the tumor grows within the skull and pressure in the brain increases, seizures are a common complication.

Imaging revealed that White had a tumor. She was diagnosed with glioblastoma, an aggressive form of brain cancer.

But her swelling was so severe that doctors couldn't quite pinpoint where in her brain it was. "There was so much swelling on the scan that we couldn't tell if it was in the sensory-motor region, in front of the sensory-motor region or behind it," Robin says.

White's team made the decision to wait about eight days for the swelling to resolve and for her to regain some awareness before proceeding with awake brain surgery.

This approach would allow the surgical team to monitor her responses as they performed the procedure and, therefore, help them be more precise when removing the tumor and leaving other tissue behind, Robin explains.

White was also given Gleolan, also known as the "pink drink," which contains a chemical that binds to the tumor cells. That makes the tumor glow with a fluorescent magenta hue under special lights used during surgery, and that glow guides surgeons as they operate in delicate areas of the brain.

After a successful surgery, White met with Dr. James Snyder, a neuro-oncologist at Henry Ford Hospital. She began the usual treatment protocol for people with this type of tumor: six weeks of radiation and a chemotherapy pill called temozolomide, followed by a month off and an MRI to check in, Snyder tells TODAY.com.

Patients with a diagnosis like White's survive, on average, for less than two years, Snyder says. But, White recalls, from the very beginning she told her doctors, "I plan to be the anomaly."

Once White had time to reflect on her diagnosis, some events in the past few months made more sense, White and her daughter Sydney, 21, say. For instance, White's father passed away earlier in 2019 and, when he was in the hospital, "I didn't have the emotions that I should have had," she says, which may have been an early sign of the tumor.

Sydney also remembers her mother making some unusual decisions while driving, like momentarily swerving into oncoming traffic without realizing it. Changes in cognition and planning capabilities are also possible symptoms of glioblastoma, Robin says.

Kate White and Dr. Adam Robin, the neurosurgeon who removed her brain tumors.
Kate White and Dr. Adam Robin, the neurosurgeon who removed her brain tumors.Courtesy Kate White

After more than three years, White's headaches returned.

Over the weekend of July 4, 2022, White had a headache that just wouldn’t go away. By that Monday, the nausea and vomiting had returned, as well.

But she wasn't ready to admit that she might have another glioblastoma. The family was enjoying their summer, and White was close to finishing her Ph.D. program.

"I was in denial because I'd had three and a half years of feeling amazing and being back to myself again," White recalls. "I think I just really didn't want to believe it."

White didn't act right away because she was "still hopeful that maybe it was just my imagination. But, sure enough, in September it had returned.”

The tumor returned in pretty much exactly the same spot, which is common, Snyder says.

While we have treatments for malignant brain tumors, they aren't cures, he explains. "So we think the tumor responds to the treatment that we give, but there might be some cells that are not actively dividing and growing that can later wake up, or they can develop resistance to that initial treatment," Snyder says.

White underwent surgery again with Robin, but this time she was at Henry Ford West Bloomfield Hospital — and she didn't have to be awake. Using the pink drink again helped "make sure that we were getting all the way around that tumor and also protecting the adjacent (tissue)," Robin explains.

White was the first patient at this facility to receive the pink drink, Lisa Scarpace, program director in the department of neurosurgery at Henry Ford Health Hermelin Brain Tumor Center, tells TODAY.com. The staff at the hospital had to be trained on how to care for White after her surgery, which included keeping her in total darkness — no screens or monitors — to avoid potential skin reactions from the fluorescence chemical.

Again, the surgery was successful. But this time, White noticed some weakness in her left arm. Robin explains that this is likely a result of not having as much unaffected brain tissue surrounding the tumor as she had during the first surgery.

“During the first surgery, we could take out the tumor and some tissue around the tumor. That’s probably the best way to ensure that it doesn’t come back,” he explains. “But with the second surgery, we didn’t have that margin.”

A story of hope, community and looking forward

This time, White was a candidate for a clinical trial, Snyder says, and she decided to enroll. It's something he hopes patients continue to do because clinical trials may lead to "major breakthroughs in the coming years," Snyder says, like new surgical technology and personalized vaccines.

Snyder also praises the selflessness that comes with participating in a trial that may benefit future patients — and sees it as another way White is using her diagnosis to give back to her community.

"The average survival with this type of tumor is typically less than two years, and Kate has done much better than that," Snyder says. "From the get-go, she's not let this tumor define her."

Robin hopes that people see just how much White has accomplished since her diagnosis, such as getting her Ph.D. and returning to her many pursuits. That long list now includes holding charity events to benefit Henry Ford Health's Game On Cancer, which helps address barriers that cancer patients might face by providing transportation to medical appointments and helping cover prescription costs, for instance.

Her story isn't just about "what an incredible member of her community she was before surgery, but that she went back to being that incredible member of her community after surgery — and after a second surgery," Robin says.

His daughters regularly scoop ice cream alongside White's daughter at the shop's charity fundraisers. Robin and Snyder both sat in the dunk tank during a recent Game On Cancer event.

Hearing stories like White's gives people hope, Robin says. "There's no stopping Kate, truthfully," Scarpace agrees. But White hopes to show other patients that they, too, can continue on with a full life.

"This diagnosis, obviously, is devastating," White says. "But I just want to live and model for other people that this does not have to be a death sentence. You can be hopeful you can continue to live your life."