Months after Marie Quinlan of Franklin Park had a brain tumor removed, her doctors at Northwestern University Brain Tumor Institute offered her and her husband, Tom, a different way of perceiving her condition.
“She’s not dying of cancer. She’s living with cancer,” doctors told them. Tom didn’t buy it at first.
“I said, cute little marketing trick,” Tom recalled.
Trick or no, the re-conceptualization sunk in after about six months. Marie and Tom now live what they call “the new norm” which other people might call living in the moment.
“There is no next,” Tom said. “We can’t make long-term plans. There’s a wedding in a year-and-a-half in Texas. Well, ask us a week ahead.”
Marie worked for 39 years at LaSalle Bank, managing a staff of 21 people in the commercial real estate division. When Bank of America bought LaSalle, Marie followed her boss to Charter One bank in the Loop, where she worked for a little over three years.
On May 20, 2011, Marie was at work when she started to feel odd.
“I was bumping into things all the time,” Marie said. “I said out loud, are they making these doorways smaller? When I made coffee, I would forget to put the pot on. I had no use of my left hand.”
Marie figured she was having stroke. An ambulance took her to Northwestern hospital. A CT scan and MRI revealed a growth in the back-right side of her brain.
The growth turned out to be a glioblastoma multiforme, a cancerous tumor usually called a GBM.
“As a brain tumor, it’s among the most common we see in adults,” said Dr James Chandler, surgical director at the Northwestern Brain Tumor Institute. “And the most aggressive. It’s a very difficult tumor to treat. There is no cure.”
The goal instead is to keep it under control. On May 24, Chandler operated on Marie for 4 1/2 hours, removing every trace of the GBM that he could find under a microscope.
The operation was successful and a few days later Marie was released from the hospital. A GBM tumor, however, usually grows backs.
“Twelve to 14 months survival is the national average,” Chandler said. “At Northwestern, its 16 to 18 months average. That’s an average. You have people who are on either side of the bell shaped curve. If Quinlan is 12 months out and has no evidence of recurrence, it is my expectation she will do better.”
Its now been 28 months since Marie, now 65, was first diagnosed. For several months she underwent radiation and chemotherapy five to seven days a week, spending the entire day in the hospital like she used to spend every day at work. She now undergoes an MRI every three months.
The surgery, radiation and chemotherapy have left Marie with side effects. She gets tired easily. If she over exerts herself physically, it can bring on a seizure.
She has lost peripheral vision in her left eye. That’s impacted her balance and hand-eye coordination, leaving her unable to drive.
“I’m not bedridden,” Marie said. “I think I’m blessed that I do have most of my faculties.”
“Right now, given what she has and its seriousness, we’re in a sweet spot,” Tom said. “She still has quality of life. She can meet with family, participate in events.”
If Marie sounds upbeat, it might be have to do to attending a support group at Northwestern for people with GBM tumors.
“Going to the group, I found people who lived,” Marie said. “One person who lived seven years. Someone had it two years.”
Not everyone in the support group does so well.
“Since we went to the group, three people died,” Marie said. “When you hear that kind of stuff, it kind of puts you down a little.”
Marie works on building her immune system with supplements and vitamins. She joins seniors for trips from the Bensenville Park District. They go to movies, a play and watch their grandson from East Leyden High School play hockey.
“I figure I’m going to live a while,” Marie said. “I don’t think I’m going to make 85. I think I’m going to be here for the next five.”