When Sandy Pedersen started feeling punky a few years back, suffering headaches and losing strength and mobility on her left side, she practiced the time-honored coping device employed by busy people everywhere — denial. She did more with her right arm and hand. She told her husband it was nothing. She chalked it up to incipient menopause and said she’d ask her gynecologist about it at her annual exam in a couple of months.
And so she did. He told her to close her eyes and hold her arms out horizontally. Only the right one obeyed, but she couldn’t feel it. He told her he couldn’t give her a definitive diagnosis, but he suspected one of three ailments, none of them the kind anyone wants to hear. It could be multiple sclerosis, a spinal tumor, or even one on her brain, he said, referring her to a neurologist.
It was a brain tumor, and an enormous one — tennis-ball size. Put your hand on top of your head and stretch your little finger and thumb down toward your ears; that’s about the real estate covered by Pedersen’s meningioma. It had probably been growing for years, the doctors said. But Pedersen found out about it all at once in the summer of 2005, and just like that, her life was brutally reordered.
Pedersen went from happy suburban homemaker to intensive-care patient, from mom-about-town to a wheelchair, from fast on her feet to flat on her back, facing radical surgery that might leave her disabled in any number of terrifying ways. Now a patient at the Hermelin Brain Tumor Center at Henry Ford Hospital and in consultation with one of her neurosurgeons, Dr. Mark Rosenblum, she told him bluntly, ‘’If you let me live, I will give back to Henry Ford and this institution for as long as I can.’’
Pedersen was as good as her word. In August of that year, Rosenblum and another surgeon, Dr. Jack Rock, opened her skull and, in a 12-hour operation, excised as much of the tumor as they could safely get. Pedersen spent several weeks recovering. But by November, she was able to attend the Hermelin Center’s Shoot for a Cure fundraiser, walking with a cane. By the following year, she had transferred her prodigious energy and organizational skills to helping plan and execute the event.
‘’I tell my kids, choose what you want to do and then push yourself as hard as you can,” she says. And raising money for Henry Ford Hospital is what she wants to do now. Pushing herself hard, she admits, isn’t as important as it once was. She now allows herself daily naps and limits a tendency toward perfectionism.
“I’m much more likely to say, ‘It’ll work itself out’ than I was before,” she says.
Pedersen was lucky in more ways than simple survival. Her tumor, as large as it was, was benign, that is, non-cancerous. Her recovery wasn’t compounded by chemotherapy. When it recently showed signs of regrowth, she was treated with radiation, lost a little hair, but didn’t slow down.
Rock, her doctor, says Pedersen’s new direction in life isn’t that unusual; many patients who experience such a profound medical event put themselves on a different path after recovery. But her generosity toward those who would follow in her footsteps is.
“They realize the excruciating emotional thing they went through is what everyone [who has a similar diagnosis] will go through,” Rock says. Advances in care and treatment can help make the ordeal less excruciating, “but that only comes through research. By backing Shoot for a Cure, she’s doing something to help everyone else.”
Pedersen also helps at a more personal level.
“Every once in a while, when someone comes in who is really distraught, Sandy has made herself available to people,” Rock says. “She’s so painfully aware of how [bad] that was. Having someone else to talk to who is now two or three years down the line, to be able to talk to someone like Sandy, it gives [patients] an opportunity to realize, first, they’re not the only one this has happened to, and, second, it doesn’t always turn out badly.”
It could have turned out very badly. The complication in Pedersen’s case wasn’t just the sheer size of the invasion, but the trickiness of its excision — a misjudgment in assessing its blood supply could have left her with a stroke or other catastrophic event. It’s knowing how close she came to the abyss that sweetens the time she has left, Pedersen says today. She recalls weeping to Rosenblum, in the terrible interim between her diagnosis and surgery, “I have to see my son graduate from high school. I have to plan my daughter’s wedding.” Rosenblum asked when the wedding was. “She doesn’t even have a boyfriend yet,” Pedersen confessed.
Today, that daughter, Danielle, still has no wedding plans. But living to see her in a white dress doesn’t seem like such an impossible dream.
“If we [as doctors] are really dedicated to treating brain tumors, both benign and malignant, it takes a lot out of people to do this their entire lives,” says Rosenblum, so profound is the event in patients’ lives. “You have to be able to both celebrate success and give hope back to the caregivers.”
That’s what Sandy Pedersen does, he adds.
Every time we see her, she says, ‘Thank you for the rest of my life.’ It’s so inspiring to us; it helps us go further.”