Braving brain surgery while awake

Amber Neal shares her story of treatment for her stage 4 brain tumor and why her heroes are her children, Logan and Caroline.

Three years ago, 23-year-old Amber Neal was feeling the glow of her first pregnancy, anxiously awaiting the joyous event of her son’s birth. But something odd and troubling cast a pall over the Mayfield, Kentucky, resident: Without warning her right eye would twitch uncontrollably, her mouth would draw up and she was unable to speak for a minute or two. These episodes occurred only four times during her pregnancy, but they were enough to send her into a tailspin.

“At first, I panicked,” she said. “I had no clue what was causing these symptoms.”

Initial testing proved inconclusive, adding to her anxiety.

Logan, her precious baby boy, was born in August 2012, but she barely had the chance to cherish the first moments. Those strange seizures returned, but this time with a fury, occurring as many as 20 times a day. An MRI at Norton Neurology Services in October 2012 revealed a stage 4 brain tumor, and immediate surgery was recommended.

Amber was told she would have an awake craniotomy, the preferred technique for performing surgery involving functionally important parts of the brain.

“It was scary,” Neal recalled. “I felt better when I learned the brain has no pain receptors.”

David A. Sun, M.D., Ph.D., neurosurgeon, Norton Cancer Institute and Norton Neuroscience Institute, performed the surgery while his colleague, Bradley S. Folley, Ph.D., neuropsychologist, asked Neal to write down selected words on a notepad as Dr. Sun stimulated an area of the brain with a mild electrical current. If the stimulation affected her ability to perform the task, this area was marked as one to be preserved. This brain-mapping technique helped to ensure that the surgery did not rob her of essential brain functions such as language and memory, which would affect her quality of life.

The successful surgery was followed by a radiation/chemotherapy regimen for several weeks. The only ill effects from Neal’s surgery are a slight loss of feeling in her right index finger and thumb. The corner of her mouth may droop when she’s tired. But most important, her seizures are gone. She undergoes an MRI every four to six months to check for any recurrence.

Throughout her unsettling ordeal, Neal has had the unwavering support of her husband, Daryl, and children, 3-year-old Logan and 7-month-old Caroline.

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