My name is Ashley Swanson. I am an Air Force wife, mother to an amazing son, teacher and a brain cancer survivor. I never thought at the age of 27 that I would begin my battle with brain cancer, but I did. In July 2012, I started to have pain in my legs; I thought it was shin splints due to the fact that I was training for a 5k. The pain continued and started to affect my whole right leg. It was so unbearable that I could not walk on my right leg. I figured that it was not a big deal, and thought maybe I had a pinched nerve. I went to the doctor and they gave me muscle relaxers and steroid shots thinking that my back was causing the pain. The next week was extremely rough. I was in so much pain, and I started to not only lose function in my right leg, but my right arm began to hurt also. The pain was like nothing I had experienced before and I knew something was wrong. It felt like my right arm and leg were asleep, which was scary because it was also affecting my circulation. I remember making my son a bottle, handing it to him, and it spilling on him because I didn't close the top tight enough; I felt like a horrible mom. I felt as if my world was changing and it was changing fast.
I went back to the doctor to make sure that the rods in my back from previous surgery were not the cause of the problem. After having x-rays done it was concluded that my rods in my back were perfectly fine. My issue continued and I knew something was definitely not right, so I was sent to get a CT scan of my neck and head. The doctor finally came back with answers. I was told that I had a bulging disc in my neck and that was what was causing all of my issues. I took the pain medications that were given to me and went home. Over the next week things got tremendously worse. I was no longer able to walk without holding onto someone and I could not take care of my son. This part was extremely difficult especially since my family was in
, and my husband, son, and I were in
. I was truly blessed to have such a strong military family that not only helped me with my son, but also provided meals so my husband did not have to cook. I was scheduled to fly to
to be treated at
a couple of weeks from then. We live in
and that is the closest medical facility that the Air Force could send me to for treatment, since our hospital on base did not have the capabilities to fix my bulging disc. As I waited to leave I knew something else had to be wrong. The tingling and pain began to move to my left side. I remember I tried to stand up to walk to the bathroom and fell because my right leg completely gave out. I could no longer walk. At that point my husband and friends knew that I needed to be seen at Tripler as soon as possible. Finally after two more trips to the Urgent Care the doctors here agreed and I was on a plane the next day. The plane ride was awful. I was scared and in so much pain. All I wanted to know was what was wrong with me. At this point I could not walk and had to be pushed in a wheelchair through the airport. When we finally arrived in
I went straight from the airport to the hospital, where I continued to be a medical mystery.
We arrived in
on July 31, and it was a whirlwind of emotions. We were very grateful that my father-in-law was able to fly out to help with Ayden (my son) so that my husband was able to stay with me in the hospital. All the tests began as soon as I got to my hospital room. When I first arrived I was greeted by several doctors and was given a MRI and CT scan of my neck, because of the supposed bulging disc that I had been told that I had. As I patiently awaited the results, the tests continued — and I continued to lose function of my legs and my arms. The doctors came in not much later and said I needed to have a brain MRI. I was confused as to why I needed another MRI, but at that point any answers were greatly appreciated. I knew something was wrong when they came in the next morning and asked when my husband was going to be coming to the hospital. I told them I was not sure and they had me call him and tell him to come in because they had found something on my brain MRI. When my husband arrived I was told that they had found a mass on the fourth ventricle in my brain. They said that when the orthopedic doctor looked at my CT he could tell that I barely had a bulging disc, but it just so happened that the results showed just enough of my head for him to notice part of the mass. From the images he knew something was not right, and that is why I was given the brain MRI; that is how they found the mass. Both my husband and I were devastated. We were told that I would have brain surgery the next morning and was told it would be a good idea to call my immediate family. Those were some of the worst calls I have ever had to make. I called my parents and sister and informed them that they had found a mass on my brain and that I would be having surgery the next day. All I remember is us crying and them telling me that they were on their way to
. I went into surgery the next day before my family arrived, but they were there when I came out, and it put a smile on my face. The surgery went really well and they were able to get the entire mass. It was wonderful news. I was told that the mass was an ependymoma, a very rare type of tumor in adults, but that 80 percent of the time the biopsy results come back non-cancerous. My family and I were extremely relieved. The news kept getting better when the doctors came in to check the function in my limbs and they were almost back to normal. It was truly a miracle. I was only in the hospital for five days before I was able to go the hotel room with the rest of my family and recover. I was told I needed to come back in 10 days to have my staples removed and then I would be able to return to
. I spent the next 10 days recovering, enjoying my family and being thankful to be alive.
When my husband and I went in for my follow-up appointment we thought for sure that we were going to be given the OK to return to
, but we were given different news. The results of the biopsy showed that the tumor was cancerous. We were again devastated. At that time they told me that I would need a spinal tap to see if the cancer cells had moved down my spine since this type of cancer travels in the cervical spinal fluid. I could not have an MRI of my back done due to the rods from my previous scoliosis surgery, but since I had regained full function of my limbs they were confident that I did not have another tumor. The doctor told me that I would need to have radiation treatment, even though they had gotten the entire tumor. I then went and met with a radiology oncologist. He informed me that I would need six weeks of treatment and the location of the radiation would depend on the results of the spinal tap. I went in the next day for my spinal tap and was finally given some uplifting news. The spinal tap came back clean! There were no cancer cells in my spinal fluid! The radiologist told me that since the spinal tap came back clean that they would only need to radiate the location where the tumor was removed, and would not have to radiate my spine or entire brain. Radiation was not a fun experience and I received treatments five days a week for six weeks. It was extremely difficult for me because I am claustrophobic and had to lay flat on my back with a mask that fastened to the table covering my face, so that I would not move during treatment. I remember the smell of burnt rubber and the taste of metal that lingered in my mouth after each treatment. I had good days and bad, but with the support of the amazing radiology team, and my husband, I made it through.
The best news came on
Oct. 26, 2012
, when the neurosurgeon told me that the results of my final MRI had come back clean, that I was cancer free and could return to
. I was overwhelmed with emotions. It was a battle, and like I stated before, not one that I would have ever thought I would have at any point in my lifetime, but I did, and I am stronger because of it. My journey has just begun. I have to meet with a neurosurgeon, neurologist and oncologist every year and have MRIs every three months, but that is fine because it means I won and cancer lost!
Ashley Swanson was diagnosed with brain cancer in July. Ashley’s is the third Survivor Story of the 2013 Relay Season.