ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (KRQE) – Scientists at the University of New Mexico’s Cancer Center are studying brain cancer and why tumors often come back. One local firefighter who knows this all too well, says this kind of research will make a world of difference for patients like him.
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Vincent Cordova joined Albuquerque Fire Rescue in 2009 at the age of 21. Three years into his career with AFR, he noticed some hearing loss and ringing in his ears after going to a scene. “I was carrying a little girl and she was screaming in my ear. I didn’t think anything of it at the time. I got back to the station and noticed I couldn’t hear that well on my right side and that was the side I was carrying her in,” said Cordova, who remembered the ringing beginning a short time later. “I went to get a CT scan and the next day, they called me back and they were like, ‘we need you to come in.'”
Cordova went to the appointment and on the computer, they pulled up an image of his brain MRI. On it, showed two golf ball-sized tumors growing inside, close together. “‘You have a brain tumor growing in your brain and you have to have surgery immediately or you’re going to die,'” Cordova recalled the doctor telling him. “I was just blown away.”
After his diagnosis back in 2012, no neurologists in New Mexico wanted to take on the case. Searching around in bigger cities for a more specialized team, he eventually settled on a doctor in California, going for months of surgery and recovery, having to relearn how to speak, eat, and more. Years later, the tumor returned. “Every year, I monitored it and it was fine, and on my fifth year, it started growing again,” said Cordova. “I was forced to do radiation.”
Now, a team of UNM researchers led by Dr. Sara Piccirillo are studying why brain tumors often come back after they’re removed. They also hope to find out how to stop these tumors in their tracks. They plan to use two grants to fund the research – set to begin soon – including a $250,000 grant from the American Association for Cancer Research and Novocure, as well as a $600,000 grant from the Ben and Catherine Ivy Foundation. “Unfortunately, these tumor cells are left behind,” said Dr. Piccirillo, who is an assistant professor with UNM’s Comprehensive Cancer Center. “They’re very migratory so they can infiltrate the brain and it’s very difficult to get them out completely.”
Cordova’s tumor, a jugular foramen schwannoma, is a little different than the glioblastomas UNM’s studies are focusing on. However, researchers hope this information can be useful for other recurring cancers, as well. “In the future, we can prevent it from coming back,” said Piccirillo, who hopes further studies and research will come up with lasting results in the next few years. “Ultimately, in the long run, we can offer more effective therapy for patients and be able to have them treated locally.”
Cordova says he now has two more tumors on his spinal cord, as his battle with cancer continues nearly a decade later. He hopes these new findings will help fellow New Mexicans going through the same ordeal, and even offer the chance to get treatment right here at home near their support systems, rather than going to other states. “The research wasn’t there for me when I got diagnosed in 2012. They didn’t know. I talked to UNM doctors and they weren’t even sure how to approach it,” said Cordova. “Knowing that they’re taking it more serious and that someone’s backing it and the donations are there for them to do the research, it’s huge.”
Piccirillo and her team say they’ve already learned that glioblastoma is not a single disease but a collection of diseases. Even within the same tumor, cells can differ vastly, which may be a key in determining why they reoccur. What is left behind during the surgery is not always equal to what was taken out.
According to the National Cancer Institute, only about 32-percent of those diagnosed with brain or nervous system cancers will survive five or more years after being diagnosed. A part of that group, Cordova says he hopes talking about his experiencing and advocating research will help others.