October 9, 2019
When Dana Addivinola woke up one morning in 2016 with a crooked smile, she thought severe stress was to blame. But her droopy cheek led to increasingly strange and debilitating symptoms over the next two years, including intense vertigo that brought the single parent’s life to a standstill and forced her to stop working.
“I felt like I was in a carnival funhouse or drunk—that’s how it felt 24/7,” says the Toms River, New Jersey, resident, who has two young girls. “I couldn’t focus my eyes and I was unable to walk, banging into walls. It was baffling.”
Just as the dizziness eased, pounding headaches began, convincing Dana, then 30, that something “really serious” was happening. A rapid appointment with Southern Ocean Medical Center neurologist Vladimir Klinov, M.D., led to tests suggesting Dana might have multiple sclerosis or Lyme disease. But an MRI scan of her brain revealed something more ominous: abnormal lesions that explained her year-long symptoms. Dana was diagnosed with a cancerous tumor known as a glioma, which was growing in her brainstem near the base of her skull.
The devastating discovery led to a carefully orchestrated array of tests and treatment by Hackensack Meridian Health specialists, whose interdisciplinary expertise has brought Dana through several low points to a place where she functions well, lives with joy and has even found love again.
Teamwork Is Key
About 80,000 primary brain tumors, which originate in the brain and don’t spread from elsewhere in the body, are diagnosed in the United States each year, according to the American Brain Tumor Association (ABTA). About 32 percent of brain tumors are cancerous, while slightly more than one-quarter are classified as gliomas, like Dana’s. Gliomas arise from the “gluey” or supportive tissues of the brain.
After her MRI scan in October 2018, Dr. Klinov quickly referred Dana to William Maggio, M.D., a neurosurgeon at Jersey Shore University Medical Center. Dr. Maggio broke the news to Dana that her tumor’s location and other characteristics made it inoperable, but that it could be treated with a coordinated care approach that included radiation at Jersey Shore’s HOPE Tower with radiation oncologist Douglas Miller, M.D., and oral chemotherapy overseen by Joseph Landolfi, D.O., medical director of Hackensack Meridian Health Neuro-Oncology in Middlesex, Monmouth and Ocean counties.
“Patients like Dana can’t be managed in a vacuum and need a group of physicians who have a multidisciplinary approach,” Dr. Maggio explains. “We have a monthly tumor board conference to discuss patients’ personalized approach. In a lot of cases, patients need various forms of treatment, so doctors must be coordinated in terms of organizing the best care. Having a team that talks to each other regularly, and has a great deal of experience, is invaluable.”
One Day at a Time
Dr. Landolfi laid out Dana’s treatment regimen just after her diagnosis, incorporating the latest clinical trial data that pointed to a survival advantage from undergoing chemotherapy and radiation at the same time. She completed six weeks of radiation in December 2018 and continues to receive chemotherapy on a monthly basis.
Side effects from her treatment were rough, with weakness prompting Dana to require oxygen and use a wheelchair. But the 31-year-old has since rebounded, her tumor remaining stable and her energy and balance improved.
“She’s doing remarkably well and I’m optimistic and confident that we’ve provided the best possible treatment,” says Dr. Landolfi, who tracks Dana with periodic MRI scans. “My hope is she will function normally for a very long period of time. It’s a best-case scenario.”
For her part, Dana approaches each new day with gratitude—for her parents, with whom she and her daughters live, and her care team. While her diagnosis is still “very difficult to bear,” Dana has found love again and is engaged to marry. Though her vision and hearing are impaired, and she’s sometimes exhausted, she enjoys going to outdoor festivals or the pool with her daughters, shopping, and traveling to Atlantic City with her fiancé, James.
“I never considered going to another hospital for my care. There was a vibe I felt from my doctors and cancer team that made me feel I was in the best of hands, that I was going to be taken care of,” she says. “I try to do whatever makes me happy every day and cherish every moment I have.”
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American Brain Tumor Association