When Kathleen Vincitore, 69, of Liverpool learned she had a small tumor growing on the nerve between her right ear and her brain, she was relieved it was not cancer.
The retired teacher spends her winters in Florida. When she returned home in the spring of 2012, Vincitore went to her doctor. Her right ear kept plugging up, and she heard ringing. She wondered if she had swimmer’s ear, or a buildup of wax. After a hearing test raised concerns, revealing a decrease in her right ear, Vincitore went for a magnetic resonance imaging scan that would give doctors a view of the nerve. She was terrified.
“I’m claustrophobic,” she explained. The thought of lying still within a narrow opening of a big scanning machine worried her. So, one of the nurses offered to stay in the MRI room with Vincitore during the scan. “Just knowing somebody was there with me made all the difference in the world.”
A couple of days later, Vincitore got the results of the scan. A noncancerous tumor called an acoustic neuroma was growing on the main nerve leading from her inner ear to her brain. She got an appointment with Charles Woods, MD, an assistant professor of otolaryngology and communication sciences at Upstate.
Vincitore asked how he knew the tumor was not cancerous. He explained that acoustic neuromas usually arise from Schwann cells (see last paragraph, below), and it’s rare that they would become malignant. In any case, he assured her, the MRI scan revealed “smooth, round borders that show no signs of invasion.”
From Woods she also learned the tumor was slow-growing and that it had likely been there for quite a few years before it got large enough to impact her hearing and cause the other symptoms. They decided to monitor the tumor.
Vincitore continued with her usual routine, wintering in Florida and spending the rest of the year in Central New York. When she returned home last spring, she saw Woods again, telling the doctor her hearing was worsening.
After another MRI, Woods told her the tumor had grown larger. He recommended a treatment called gamma knife radiation that would halt the tumor’s growth. The gamma “knife” does no cutting. It’s a minimally invasive tool used to precisely target tumors in the brain and auditory canal with radiation.
Woods routinely treats patients with a variety of skull-based tumors using the gamma knife. Vincitore asked him what she could expect during the procedure.
“I have to know what’s going on. I’m fine — as long as I know what’s going to happen,” she explained.
When she had the gamma knife procedure in June, she recalled, “I had no fear because I knew exactly what was going to happen at every minute.”
The neuroma still has to be monitored, to make sure it does not start growing again. Vincitore knows she won’t regain her hearing on the right side – but she’s thankful for the simple work-around that allows her to hear what’s most important. Her grandchildren – ages 5, 8, 10 and 11 – all know to speak into her left ear.
What is an acoustic neuroma?
A noncancerous tumor that grows from the Schwann cells of the vestibular nerve, acoustic neuromas can cause permanent hearing loss, ringing in the ears, dizziness and balance problems. Usually they are slow-growing, but in some rare cases acoustic neuromas can expand to press against the brain and cause other problems.
This article appears in the fall 2015 issue of Upstate Health magazine.