By Sue Botos
As an athlete, Rocky River native Kelly Patterson is not one to back down when challenged. So, she treated the diagnosis of a malignant brain tumor like facing the toughest opponent of her life.
“She looked at me and said ‘Game on!’” her mother, Pat Patterson, said, recalling her daughter’s reaction to receiving her first shipment of chemotherapy pills. While Kelly went rock climbing soon after beginning the five-pill-per-month treatment, the side effects soon took their toll.
“By the fifth pill, she was very sick,” Patterson said, but Kelly never complained.
Kelly Patterson, 29, who now looks the picture of health, actually smiles when she recalls her experience. “I’m in better shape now than before. This has opened my eyes so much. Things happen for a reason,” the personal trainer and fitness instructor said.
“I’ve worked out my whole life,” said Patterson, who starred in volleyball, softball and swimming at Rocky River High School, graduating in 2003. At some point during her senior year, Patterson noticed she began getting migraine headaches, but the pain eased with rest and medication.
As a spinning instructor at Fitworks in Rocky River, Patterson dealt with the headaches until the summer of 2011. “She didn’t tell me, all of the time, when she had headaches,” Pat Patterson added. “They kept giving her medications, but it got so bad that she couldn’t open her eyes.”
“I knew something was wrong. No prescription was helping and it finally got to the point where (doctors) ordered an MRI,” Kelly recalled.
The image revealed a mass on the right lobe of her brain. “I was in complete shock,” Kelly said, noting that she was in excellent physical shape with no other symptoms than the headaches. She called her mother, who was driving home from an appointment, with the news, and the two women, along with Kelly’s then-boyfriend, returned to the Cleveland Clinic main campus the next day.
“They pulled up the MRI and we just stared at it. We asked the doctor if it was a tumor,” Pat recalled.
“My primary care doctor just said, ‘All I can tell you is that you have a mass in your brain,’” added Kelly, who said her reaction was somewhere “between shock and relief” – the shock of the diagnosis, and relief that the cause of her pain had been discovered.
Enter neurosurgeon Violette Recinos. “They brought in this beautiful woman surgeon, Dr. Recinos, and they hit it off right away,” Pat recalled.
Recinos recalled that initial meeting. “She is such a sweet, positive person. She struck me as someone who was willing to face this.” She described Patterson’s proactive attitude as “I have no time to sit here and worry. What are we going to do?”
Kelly said surgery to remove the tumor was scheduled for the following week. “I went from having migraines to ‘Wow, this is serious.’”
Family gathered at the clinic on Sept. 30, 2011, as Recinos and her team removed most of Patterson’s right frontal lobe, leaving behind an inoperable portion that Patterson said is about the size of a peanut. After 48 hours, Patterson was home and mobile. But then came the biopsy results everyone dreaded: stage 2 oligodendroglioma, a form of brain cancer.
After 11 months of chemotherapy, pills which Pat Patterson said were tailored to her daughter’s specific case, the small lesion hasn’t changed in 18 months. She said the Cleveland Clinic is working on a pill that may help get rid of this lesion. “We’re praying every day because she would be the perfect candidate,” she said.
Kelly Patterson credits her spirituality as well as a strong work ethic with not letting cancer take over her life. “I kept going and focused on work. I worked very part time. I didn’t feel good, I called off. Fitworks was awesome about it. There was no way I could (have done it) with a 9-to-5 job,” she stated.
As a fitness instructor, Patterson has emphasized good nutrition for herself and her clients, but now she says she eats almost a raw diet of basically salads and vegetables, free of gluten, alcohol and sugar. She explained that sugar can react with cancer cells.
But the battle is not over. According to Recinos, Patterson’s outlook for long-term survival is good, but she will need lifelong monitoring, due to the makeup of brain cells. “Even if we had gotten all of it out, we would have to follow up long term,” she said. Patterson noted that she has an MRI done every three months.
“It’s been quite a journey,” reflected Pat Patterson, who said her daughter will still take naps between her morning and afternoon shifts at Fitworks. “She’s so grateful every day. She has a lot of depth.”
Kelly added that this is one opponent that will not get the best of her. “I accept it and move on. I still can do the things I like to do, and I’m grateful for that.”