Surviving brain cancer inspires incoming freshman to pursue medicine
As he crossed the stage to accept his high school diploma in May, Jeffrey Brown was celebrating just one more milestone.
Among the other recent accomplishments: maintaining a 4.0 GPA, being accepted to two prestigious universities — and, perhaps biggest of all, conquering stage four brain cancer.
But the 18-year-old, who will be attending U-M beginning this week, is already looking toward future goals.
Top of the list? To end up back at C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital, a place where he spent an entire summer and more than half a year fighting cancer.
This time, though, he intends to be on the other side of care.
“My dream is to some day care for kids with cancer on the seventh floor of Mott, to be part of a community that nurtures others and to inspire the hope that was given to me,” Jeffrey wrote in one of his scholarship essays. “I want to emulate the care I received.”
As Jeffrey moves to campus for the first time, he’s a long way away from how he spent his 14th birthday: in a hospital room receiving chemotherapy after the shocking diagnosis that rocked his family’s world in May 2013.
A serious diagnosis
There were early signs something was wrong that January when the teenager began vomiting and experiencing nausea, but blood tests and X-rays showed nothing serious. Jeffrey, then an eighth-grader, was sent home with acid reflux medication.
But symptoms got worse. While playing saxophone in band class, the sheet music notes began “bouncing” on the page, he recalled. At recess, the soccer ball seemed to suddenly change directions. During algebra class, the variables looked like they were hopping from positive to negative infinity. And there was the day his parents got a call from school to come pick him up because he couldn’t remember his phone number or how to dial the phone.
As soon as she saw her son’s uncontrollable eye twitching, Michelle Brown knew they had to go to the hospital.
“I’ve spent 27 years working with patients, including those who have had something wrong with their central nervous system. His symptoms were textbook,” said Brown, a longtime physical therapist for the U-M acute care physical therapy team. “I tried to stay calm and not show him how worried I was.”
By the time Jeffrey arrived at Mott’s emergency department, he was seeing double of everything and had trouble opening his eyes.
An MRI confirmed Brown’s worst fears: multiple brain tumors.
Teamwork and treatment
Within days, a team led by pediatric neurosurgeon Hugh Garton, M.D., performed a craniotomy to remove part of the bone from Jeffrey’s skull to biopsy the most accessible tumor with the lowest risk to obtain more detailed images differentiating between tumor tissue and healthy tissue.
Jeffrey’s diagnosis was primary central nervous system large B-cell lymphoma. Multiple tumors were found to be wreaking havoc on his nervous system.
Because this type of brain cancer is more common in adults, Jeffrey’s doctors consulted with colleagues around the country. The Michigan Medicine tumor board, a multidisciplinary meeting of experts that gathers each week to discuss cases, analyzed images and discussed the best route for Jeffrey’s care.
His team of pediatric oncologists and neuro-oncologists, including Rajen Mody, MBBS, and Patricia Robertson, M.D., chose one of two recommended clinical trial options. Besides a chest port for intravenous chemotherapy treatment, the Mott neurosurgical team would insert a thin tube called a ventricular access catheter through a small hole in Jeffrey’s skull to directly inject chemotherapy drugs into his cerebrospinal fluid.
Jeffrey spent the next eight months, including most of the summer before his freshman year at Fr. Gabriel Richard High School in Ann Arbor, in and out of Mott for aggressive chemotherapy treatment. Based on historical outcomes, the treatment had a 50-50 chance of success.
“Of course, no mother wants to hear that her child needs eight months of chemo and that there’s a 50 percent chance it won’t work,” Brown said. “But this experience has definitely strengthened my faith and showed me the power of family, friends and support.
“For me to witness and watch this young man and how he has handled everything, I’m just blown away. Even as his mom, I didn’t know how strong this kid was. I know he’s going to do great things.”
Today, Jeffrey is tumor-free. He still sometimes experiences uncontrollable eye twitching (called nystagmus), but it has lessened significantly, and Jeffrey has learned tactics that help avoid triggering the eye movements.
“There were definitely some agonizing moments, but I just knew that nothing could break my spirit,” Jeffrey said. “The treatment made me sick and it could be painful, but I was thankful for my family’s support and our strong faith that helped me through it.
“I just knew I would get past it somehow.”
The aspiring physician and youngest of five children was also accepted at Johns Hopkins University. But he is committed to being a Wolverine, following the path of two of his older siblings who attend Michigan.
“My battle with cancer really sparked a passion for medicine,” he said. “I was surrounded by brilliant minds through all of the health care professionals at Mott. I knew I wanted be a part of a team like that, a team not only focused on curing your disease but on helping you live your best life — even when the chemo is making you throw up and lose your hair.”
Going forward, the journey continues to give him perspective.
“I know I was one of the fortunate ones,” Jeffrey said. “I consider everyday a blessing, a gift of life. I don’t want to waste a minute of it.”
Learn more about supporting Michigan research to fight and cure rare childhood cancers.