A 50-year anniversary: Meet one of Upstate’s oldest living pediatric brain tumor survivors

Michelle "Shelly" Kikta-Kiner, at home with her grandchildren, Cole, 8, and Rowan, 7. (PHOTO BY SUSAN KAHN)

Michelle “Shelly” Kikta-Kiner, at home with her grandchildren, Cole, 8, and Rowan, 7. (PHOTO BY SUSAN KAHN)

BY AMBER SMITH

Some of the details are fuzzy, but 50 years after her treatment for a brain tumor at Upstate University Hospital, Michelle “Shelly” Kikta-Kiner, 62, still considers her survival a miracle. The Verona woman is one of Upstate’s oldest living survivors of a pediatric brain tumor.

She was 12 in 1965 when her nose began bleeding sporadically. She developed headaches. Then she had episodes of projectile vomiting. Her mother took her to a local doctor.

Shelly during treatment for a brain tumor in 1966. (PROVIDED PHOTO)

Shelly during treatment for a brain tumor in 1966. (PROVIDED PHOTO)

Around the same time, Kikta-Kiner’s aunt had a benign brain tumor removed at Upstate University Hospital. She mentioned Kikta-Kiner’s symptoms, and the surgeon agreed to see the young girl.

Kikta-Kiner remembers spinal taps and painful testing to locate the tumor, monthslong hospital stays and a giant teletherapy machine.

Medical advances since then have provided better ways to locate tumors, says Lawrence Chin, MD, chair of the neurosurgery department at Upstate Medical University.

The painful test Kikta-Kiner described was a cerebral ventriculogram, something that seems barbaric by todays’s standards. It involved tapping into the spinal canal to inject air, and then tipping the table, so the air would travel to the patient’s head and outline the fluid space in the brain. This would reveal growths or structural changes in the brain, but it created severe headaches for the patients.

Though that equipment hasn’t been used in more than four decades, “the basic concept is still the same,” Chin says, explaining that magnetic resonance imaging scans now guide surgeons in brain biopsies.

Shelly's self-portrait at age 12, before she got sick and lost her hair.

Shelly’s self-portrait at age 12, before she got sick and lost her hair.

Radiation and chemotherapy remain standard treatments for brain tumors.

The machine that Kikta-Kiner remembers, from which she received the radioisotope cobalt-60 to kill tumor tissue, was the forerunner of today’s gamma knife, which uses cobalt radiation. “I had a lot of radiation, like 30 treatments,” she says. She missed all of eighth grade. “When I came home, my Dad got me a wig, and I went back to school.

“When I first came home, my gait was off, and my left hand shook,” she says. “It’s still not as fast as my right hand, but to look at it, you wouldn’t notice anything wrong.”

Since then, Kikta-Kiner has lived a full life. She went to college, married and in recent years has dealt with other cancers. In 2006 she had her thyroid and a nearby lymph node removed. Later, doctors removed a cancerous polyp from her intestines and treated a skin cancer on her ankle.

For a while after her childhood ordeal, she dealt with depression. Fifty years later, she has the reminder of a bald spot on her head – and the belief in her heart that her survival was a miracle.

cancercaresummerThis article appears in the summer 2016 issue of Cancer Care magazine.

 

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