Why cancer patients with once inoperable brain tumors have reason for optimism

HENRICO COUNTY, Va. -- At the age of 37, Sally Carlton is a wife and mother dealing with stage four melanoma that has metastasized to her brain.

She was diagnosed last summer, four years after undergoing plastic surgery to remove an abnormal mole from her shoulder. After the surgery, doctors felt confident that the cancer was gone.

"Everything looked good afterwards," Carlton said. "Everything came back clear."

But shortly after her daughter's first birthday, the symptoms of recurrent cancer started with severe and debilitating headaches.

"I wasn't even able to function. My head hurt so bad that all I could think about was the horrible pain that I was in," Carlton recalled.

Carlton was rushed to the hospital, where doctors confirmed a massive tumor in her brain. She was immediately prepared for brain surgery.

Dr. Katrina Murphy, a Neurosurgeon with Henrico Doctors' Hospital, was able to offer reassurance to Carlton that she would be able to target the exact location of the tumor and safely remove it.

"Dr. Murphy came in and told me that I was going to have a craniotomy done, and she was the one who was going to be doing the craniotomy," Carlton said. "She was like an angel that walked in."

Murphy says newer technology is helping cancer patients who have brain tumors that were once considered inoperable because of their size or location.

"With surgery, what we worry about, especially with cancer, is we want to remove the tumor, but we don't want to cause any permanent deficits," Murphy said. "We don't want to cause somebody to have symptoms that look like a stroke."

Today, using image-guided surgery systems, doctors can measure the position of the tumor in relationship to other parts of the brain and plan the best access to the tumor.

Murphy uses a system known as Brainlab, that gives her three-dimensional images of a patient's anatomy. This allows for a safer and far less invasive surgery.

"This system is able to navigate us directly to the tumor, that way we don't disrupt important vital structures and we can just resect the tumor itself and resect the entire tumor," Murphy said.

Murphy says she's able to perform surgery on several patients, without making it look like they've actually had brain surgery.

This was very reassuring to Carlton.

"She said 'you've got beautiful red hair and I'm not going to have to cut it,'" Carlton remembered.

While Carlton continues to fight her cancer with chemotherapy, immunotherapy and radiation treatments, she's grateful for the doctors who are giving her hope.

She's also thankful for her loving and supportive family.

"They've been so supportive and positive and that's keeping us strong," Carlton added.

Working For Your Health is a partnership with HCA Healthcare. Serving the greater Richmond area, Chippenham, Henrico Doctors’, Johnston-Willis, Parham Doctors’, and Retreat Doctors’ Hospital are part of HCA Virginia. Watch for Working For Your Health reports Tuesdays on CBS 6 News at 7 p.m.

Watch for Working For Your Health reports on CBS 6.

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