UAB Medicine

June 1, 2010

Callie Dunaway's Story: Brain Tumor

Callie Dunaway was 26 years old, driving home from work, when she had a seizure behind the wheel. “I had never had a seizure in my life,” she says. “I hit another car, but thankfully that driver was O.K.” An ambulance took Callie to UAB’s emergency room, where she was diagnosed with a Grade II Astrocytoma brain tumor, the most common form of brain tumor in 20-somethings.

“I felt like I needed to go pick out my casket,” she says. “I could never conceive of having brain cancer, so the second they said it, I just emotionally broke down.” Even though Callie works with cancer patients at the UAB Comprehensive Cancer Center, the diagnosis was a shock. “I’ve never met a brain cancer patient, so I fell apart. And I didn’t know that we could treat this — it sounded so scary. My family had to pull me back together. I also had fabulous doctors who talked some sense back into me and gave me a treatment plan and we got started.”

Callie underwent a biopsy so doctors could determine the type and grade of cancer. Once they knew, they decided on six weeks of radiation and oral chemotherapy for a year.

“Radiation was horrible and wonderful all at the same time,” Callie says. “I hated it because some of my hair fell out, but I loved it because I met some really neat people. Children from Children’s Hospital are radiated at the same place, and they were sweet and precious. I thought, ‘If they can do this, surely I can do this too.’”

During radiation, Callie was required to wear a mask, which “looked like something out of a sci-fi movie,” she says. She had to lie on the table while the mask was bolted down to hold her head still. This ensured that the radiation hit exactly where the tumor was every time. “The first day they bolted my mask to the table, they had prepared me and told me what was going to happen,” Callie says. “I freaked out and started crying, and they took it off and assured me I could do this — it was just for five minutes. I could do anything for five minutes. Once they talked me off the cliff, they snapped the mask back on and off we went. For six weeks straight, every single day I thought, ‘I can do anything for five minutes.’”

Callie received her care at UAB and has never looked back. “I came to UAB for treatment because I work here and I know a lot of our doctors. I knew we had some of the finest care in the world and that we are the only Comprehensive Cancer Center in the six-state region. So I started here and I have never questioned getting a second opinion. When they told me Dr. James Markert would be my neurosurgeon, I knew that name and trusted that he was one of the finest neurosurgeons in the world. Dr. Burt Nabors was my neurologist and I thought the same thing with him.

“Dr. Ed Partridge, who is the director of the cancer center, went with me to my first appointment. I asked him if I needed a second opinion, and he looked at me and said, ‘Do you think I would let anything happen to you? I said no and decided to stay right here at home and chose not to get a second opinion. Everything the doctors said made sense, and the treatment plan seemed so perfect that I didn’t feel that I needed to go anywhere else.”

Because Callie works for the UAB Comprehensive Cancer Center, she has seen a wide spectrum of patients and emotions. “When I was diagnosed I had worked here for about two years. I’ve seen everything from survivors celebrating their lives to patients losing their hair and being very sick with IV’s in their arm and the tears that come with that. I’ve seen patients get diagnosed and have hugged them through it, so when it happened to me, all of a sudden I was in their shoes,” she said. But her experience has been a positive one, because it has given her a new perspective to do her job well.

“I wasn’t sure how to react, going from being an employee to a patient,” she says. “I passed my doctors in the hallway, and the people who drilled holes in my head were in the cafeteria getting food, but they always remembered my name and always smiled and asked how I was feeling. It’s actually been pretty fun, because now I know a lot more people at UAB than when we started this.”

Callie has finished radiation and recently had her six-month check-up. Her doctors were pleased with the results of the radiation and told her she doesn’t have to come back for another check up for an entire year. “I will continue my oral chemo for four more months, and if neuro-oncology is as pleased as radiation oncology, I will stop the oral chemo and will see neuro-oncology every three months, then every six months, then every year for the rest of my life,” she says.

Even though a cancer diagnosis is difficult, both physically and emotionally, Callie offers tips to those going through a similar situation. “I would tell someone in my shoes to get tough — crying doesn’t help, although sometimes it does make you feel better. I’ve had plenty of nights where I pulled the covers over my head and just cried, because nobody could fix this for me. But I would also tell others to find support, whether it’s their family or somebody else who has walked this road. You also need to laugh a lot. If you choose to sit around and cry and dwell on the worst, then it seems like it’s the worst. I’ve had great friends and a wonderful family and we have laughed through this. We have laughed at what happened to my hair, we have made funny Christmas cards out of it, because we choose to celebrate that we found it and celebrate life instead of choosing to mourn that hair fell out and that there is a tumor living in my head.”

Callie is excited about the opening of the new Hazelrig-Salter Radiation-Oncology building and what it means for UAB cancer patients. “The new center is fabulous. I cried the first time I walked into it. One of my girlfriends was with me and asked why I was crying, and I said, ‘You don’t know how much joy there is in this place. There’s sunlight and bright colors and life. It’s incredible.’”