Melissa Arneson, 43, is an IT kind of woman. Serving in a technical support position at Bemidji State University (BSU) for the past 13 years, she brings a number of skills to her clients including research, data analysis and problem solving. Melissa couldn't have imagined that those skills would be so important when it came to her choosing the best treatment option for what turned out to be a life-altering medical condition.
Her only symptoms—blurred vision and mild dizziness—first appeared in spring of 2010. She had undergone Lasik surgery on both eyes in 2000 but her vision had declined so her ophthalmologist recommended new glasses. The symptoms persisted and she began to feel, as she describes it, "just plain weird."
In July, her family physician ordered an MRI. Imaging revealed a tumor and she was immediately referred to a neurologist. The neurologist told her a few things: first, that based on the tumor's structure, it was probably benign but that he could not be 100 percent positive; second, short of a biopsy, there was no way to confirm if the tumor was cancerous or not; and third, that type of surgical option was tremendously risky because the tumor was situated on the sagittal sinus cavity vein. If a surgeon accidentally nicked that vein, it could mean a stroke, or death, for Melissa.
"That was not an attractive option for me or my husband and children, but I had to do something," Melissa remembers. "I just couldn't wait and see what might happen next. I had to take control and find a way to solve this problem."
Her neurologist then referred Melissa to CyberKnife Center at St. Joseph's Hospital in St. Paul. She first met with one of the board-certified neurological surgeons at the center who helped to evaluate Melissa's case, and discussed next steps related to using this sophisticated, highly targeted, non-invasive treatment. Melissa's CyberKnife surgeon said: "The amazing technology that CyberKnife brings to St. Joseph's Hospital has revolutionized the way we manage complex problems such as Melissa's. Our goal has always been to offer our patients the best outcomes possible. A few short years ago, the only treatment for this type of condition would have been open surgery with all of its associated risks and recovery time. Now, we can often avoid surgery entirely while providing an excellent chance for a great result. It's clearly a win-win proposition."
Next, Melissa met with a board-certified radiation oncologist and key member of the CyberKnife team. "She evaluated my images and answered every question I asked, she explained all of the pros but was also honest about possible cons and urged me to consider them carefully."
Finally, Melissa met the nurses and technicians, who made her feel like she would have a strong support network if she decided to pursue CyberKnife treatment. "By this time, we were pretty confident that this was our best option."
Even with her decision made, Melissa continued to pore through research and read different studies. "Everything kept pointing me in the direction of CyberKnife."
A care plan was developed and in August 2010, Melissa underwent her sessions—five days in a row, one hour each time. She credits the CyberKnife team with patiently managing her extreme claustrophobia during the creation of her flexible, mesh, facial mask; she recalls how staff held her hand, spoke softly, played quiet music, and worked quickly. "When it came time to do the treatments, they said they could stop if I needed them to. I even had problems going in the elevator, so Miyaa, at the front desk, walked us up and down the secured stairwell rather than making us use the elevator. The entire team was welcoming, friendly and helpful. They never made me feel like I was bothering them and both doctors were completely on top of what was happening."
Melissa's treatment was completed one week before the onset of the 2010-2011 school year. She returned to work and found her whole community there to help. "Everyone at BSU was wonderful, covering shifts for me and taking pieces of my job so I could concentrate on recovery."
In November 2010, Melissa returned to CyberKnife for her follow-up MRI. The purpose of the visit was two-fold:
1) To monitor the tumor's response to radiosurgery and
2) To identify and address any potential negative side effects from the treatment.
Currently, Melissa is doing very well. Her exam was normal and she is not suffering from any side effects, other than being tired. Her next check up will be in about six months. Melissa's CyberKnife radiation oncologist says, "It's our job not only to take care of the tumor, but also to ensure that our patients have a good quality of life and can live as normally as possible. We're here to guide them through the process."
Melissa agrees. "This was such a good beginning treatment," said Melissa. "I've been able to lead an everyday normal life with my family. I've been able to work; I've even been exercising. I'm still a little tired, but what they said would happen, happened. I was able to really participate in decisions about my own life. Only time will tell, but for me, CyberKnife has taken me from a sense of terror to a sense of calm."