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In the spring of 2009, Danielle Gillespie’s life was full of new beginnings. The 20-year-old Saline resident had recently given birth to her oldest daughter Juliana, was in the midst of planning her wedding, and in May, she’d started a nursing program at the University of Detroit Mercy. But on the second day of the program, while carpooling with a pair of fellow students, she suffered a seizure. She woke up to the paramedics taking her out of the car. The cause? A cancerous, golf-ball sized tumor on the right side of her brain known as a glioblastoma.
“Most glioblastomas are found in men over the age of 60,” Gillespie says. “So the doctors were surprised to find I had it.”
The next day, Gillespie visited Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit where she met neuro-oncologist Dr. Tom Mikkelsen, neurosurgeon Dr. Konstantin Elisevich and medical director of the Henry Ford Cancer Institute Dr. Steven Kalkanis. The team began mapping out a plan to remove Gillespie’s tumor and develop a path to recovery.
From the beginning, Gillespie says, her Henry Ford doctors were optimistic about her prognosis, urging her not to consider any of the statistics surrounding young people and the survival rate for glioblastomas.
“The average survival for glioblastomas in the United States is less than two years,” Dr. Kalkanis says. “But over the last decade at Henry Ford, through innovative clinical trials and precision medicine, we’ve seen a tripling of the number of very long term survivors for the most malignant forms of brain cancer. The percent chance of surviving eight years or more after a glioblastoma diagnosis is, on average, less than one percent, but more and more patients are now beating the odds.”
In addition to those statistics, doctors informed Gillespie that she had other personal factors working in her favor, too.
“They told me ‘Danielle, You have three unique things going for you: You’re young, you’re female and [after the surgery was over] your tumor is sitting in a bucket.”
And while Gillespie’s diagnosis was indeed rare (and her surgery was a success), she wasn’t quite as unique as she thought. In fact, another young woman had recently come to Henry Ford for glioblastoma treatment and was already six weeks in to the healing process.
Bloomfield Hills resident Sasha Archer was 28 years old when she arrived at Henry Ford West Bloomfield Hospital to have her glioblastoma removed. Like Gillespie, her life prior to the diagnosis was packed with activity. She was juggling two jobs (one as a System Specialist for Konica Minolta and one as a bartender) and she’d recently started traveling to and from California to see a man she’d been dating.
Unlike Gillespie, however, Archer was living alone when she started exhibiting symptoms of a brain tumor at her house in Waterford. One morning in February 2009, she woke up in a sweat and couldn’t make it into work. Her boss called to ask where she was, and she hung up on him. The next day, while in the office, her coworkers noticed that her behavior was off.
“My personality was there, but it was so different in certain ways that everyone thought I was on drugs,” Archer says.
A few days later, while working her bartending job in Southfield, Archer’s coworkers took her to the hospital after recognizing that she couldn’t manage basic tasks like how to make drinks. Doctors diagnosed her with a grade IV glioblastoma in her left frontal lobe. Two weeks later, Archer was admitted to Henry Ford West Bloomfield Hospital where neurosurgeon Dr. Ghaus Malik and oncologist Dr. Thomas Doyle teamed up to address her case.
“It was a pretty traumatic experience,” Archer says. “But when there’s a big obstacle, I’m going to get through it. There is no other option. That’s just my personality.”
Dr. Malik, Sasha’s neurosurgeon, recalls how this was the first brain tumor surgery performed at Henry Ford West Bloomfield Hospital. “When I asked her if she was comfortable being the first patient having brain surgery in a hospital just opened one day earlier, her response was ‘If you are comfortable doing the surgery, why should I be concerned?’” “She is an amazing woman,” he says.
Six weeks in to her recovery, which involved several weeks of chemotherapy and a variety of medications, one of Archer’s nurses informed her that another young woman had come to Henry Ford for brain tumor treatment and asked if Archer would be willing to connect with her.
“I said ‘Of course!” Archer says. “I’m happy to talk to anyone!”
Archer and Gillespie connected over the phone and started sharing stories about their experiences. They discussed the side effects of chemotherapy, their concerns about fertility and how coincidental it was that the two of them were diagnosed so closely together.
Additionally, both of them were participating in the same clinical trial program. In a trial for a medication called cilengitide, both women received the standard of care (meaning they did not receive the new trial medication).
“It was fun for me to talk to somebody who knew the things I was talking about,” Archer says.
Gillespie, too, was thrilled to have someone help her navigate her diagnosis, the clinical trial and her healing process.
“When you’re diagnosed with something like brain cancer, chances are, you don’t know what chemo and radiation are like,” Gillespie says. “I didn’t know anybody in my immediate family who dealt with that, so I was grateful to have somebody to talk to who had been there before. Sasha really showed me the ropes.”
Now, both women share their experiences with other cancer fighters and survivors through Imerman Angels—a one-on-one cancer support program that matches cancer fighters or caregivers with someone undergoing a similar experience.
“I remember a few years ago attending a fundraiser for Imerman’s Angels,” says neuro-oncologist Dr. Jim Snyder. “Sasha gave an amazing speech that totally captured the audience and lifted everyone up. The story of Sasha mentoring Danielle and the two of them now mentoring others is exactly what Imerman’s Angels is meant to capture.”
Today, Gillespie and Archer are celebrating close to 10 years of being cancer free. In that time, neither of them has seen a recurrence of their cancer—a fact that they and their families cherish every day.
Once a year, Gillespie returns to the Henry Ford Hermelin Brain Tumor Center and visits Dr. Tom Mikkelsen to check for any changes to her health; Archer also returns annually for checkups with neuro-oncologist Dr. Jim Snyder.
“These two patients and patients like them have a profound impact on the doctors. They motivate us to not only do better, but to push forward with hope and compassion,” Dr. Snyder says.
In her spare time, Gillespie enjoys gardening, cooking, and spending time with her husband and their two daughters, giving birth to her second daughter, Madeline - who she refers to as “post-chemo baby.”
Archer, who has a new special bond with her mother, also enjoys spending time with her family and friends and operating her dog walking business. Soon, she plans to embark on a new chapter in her life as a nursing student.
“I want to be like Danielle,” Archer says.
Regardless of where they’re lives take them next, the two survivors say that they’ll be celebrating their 10 years of survivorship together.
“We don’t know what or where or when,” Gillespie says, “But since we’re so close, who else would you want to celebrate with? Someone who’s been there with you and knows what it means.”