Living a miracle - Diagnosis of deadly brain tumor leads to woman’s surgery surprise

By Carolyn Cole
Published on June 14, 2008

Doctors cutting into Mustang resident Sherri Nance’s skull to remove a life-threatening brain tumor were dumbfounded.

The vestibular schwannoma doctors had seen in a magnetic resonance image the day before wasn’t there. Instead they found a cyst. Nance said the doctors told her they believe the tumor died on its own. The case was unlike anything they had ever seen, she said.

“It was like a miracle,” she said.

The 30-year-old mother underwent surgery April 29 to remove a tumor doctors believed was growing near her brain stem for six years. The first symptoms appeared almost two years ago, and Nance said she ignored her nausea and problems with balance at first. Then she started hearing constant ringing in her ears and having severe earaches.

“Without insurance you don’t just go off and go to the doctor,” she said.

Doctors treated her with ear infection medication, and she had dental work, but her symptoms worsened. She lost the hearing in her right ear and feeling in the right side of her face. The pain became severe, and she went to the emergency room three times in agony before doctors prescribed a computerized axial tomography scan, which showed a walnut-sized tumor.

Vestibular schwannoma is a slow-growing tumor that develops from the balance and hearing nerves supplying the inner ear. Doctors believe her severe pain started when the tumor reached her brain stem.

They told her only surgery could save her life. She said they could remove most of the tumor, except the part touching the brain stem, which they hoped to control with radiation therapy.

When Nance went into surgery at 7:30 a.m. April 29, the last thing she said she remembered was staring up into a sea of doctors’ faces in the operating room before the anesthesia drugs put her to sleep. The surgery was expected to take between 12 and 14 hours for doctors to cut out the mass and repair damage it caused to nerves in Nance’s face.

Her husband Wade and their three children, Brooklyn, Paris and Jacob, waited anxiously in a waiting room crowded with about 20 friends and relatives. The doctors had promised to update them every hour as the surgery progressed. Wade Nance received an update at about 9 a.m. that the surgery to place a weight in her right eyelid was successful, which will allow her to blink. Then hours passed, and Sherri Nance said her husband later told her he grew worried.

Then doctors walked into the waiting room at 11:30 a.m., and told her family she was in recovery, hours ahead of schedule. Instead of surgically removing the tumor, they found a cyst-like mass and drained the fluid. A sample of the substance was studied, but ruled non-cancerous.

“It wasn’t the tumor that they saw on the MRI,” Nance said. “They had never seen that before.”

Instead of spending weeks in the intensive care unit, she was discharged from the hospital a few days after the surgery. The radiation treatments and physical therapy doctors once believed she would need but couldn’t afford are no longer necessary.

Gradually, Nance said she is regaining her smile and some use of the facial muscles on the right side of her face that doctors thought were permanently damaged by the mass. She hasn’t regained any of the hearing in her right ear.

She still suffers from migraines and nausea, but the severity is a fraction of the pain the mass caused before the surgery. Her doctors told her they expect those problems to fade as she heals from the surgery.

“Every day it gets better,” she said. “I am a believer.”

While her family faced her tragedy, Nance said her friends and community rallied to help. Friends from church cooked dinner for them, and the soccer parents held a cook off to raise money. Get well cards flooded their mailbox, and a few anonymous well-wishers sent money tucked inside.

“The love of this community, Mustang, is an awesome place to live,” she said.

A garage sale will be held to help the family June 19 through June 21 at the M.D. Merryfield Center, 1125 West state Highway 152 in Mustang. Nance said friends planned the benefit for months, and since her family didn’t have health insurance at the time of her diagnosis, medical bills have continued to come in. Donations can be brought to the center or for information, call 376-4238.

“Everybody came together; it was amazing,” she said.

While Nance said she is grateful for her friends’ prayers and support, the medical emergency has also given her a new perspective on life.

“It has changed me all around,” she said. “My faith has gotten a lot stronger ... you don’t take life for granted at all.”

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