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“If I can do that, then, I can do this too,” said Kim Richardson-Hippler, referring to long-distance running, a beloved hobby she began in her forties. Kim said it was that same determination that would give her the strength to fight a cancerous brain tumor. She would need every bit of it.
Kim’s long journey began in the spring of 2012. She was gardening near her front porch, when she was struck with severe headaches and vision problems. “Very suddenly and abruptly, the world changed color,” she said.
It was originally thought that she was suffering from a migraine, but, when the symptoms wouldn’t go away, Kim and her husband had a nagging feeling that something else was going on. After visiting several health systems, they settled on Henry Ford and neurosurgeon, Ghaus Malik, M.D. “He was the first person who explained things to me in a way that I could understand. Dr. Malik was easy to talk to and reassuring.”
Dr. Malik removed Kim’s tumor in the fall of 2012 and that’s when she and her husband, Chris, first learned just how difficult this journey would be. Her diagnosis: glioblastoma or (GBM), a rare but highly aggressive form of brain cancer. When Dr. Malik gave her the news, she thought about her passion for running, having completed not one, but seven half marathons since 2005, something she once thought was impossible. “I told my doctors, ‘There’s nothing I can’t handle. Just tell me what you need me to do.’ I knew I was in for a pretty rough time, but, I felt I had it in me to fight this,” said Kim.
And she wanted to fight it, not just for herself and her family, but also for all of the kids in her second grade classroom, at the school where she’d taught every year for the last twenty-one years. Under the watchful eye of her neurosurgeon and neuro-oncologist, Kim underwent multiple radiation and chemotherapy treatments, followed by regular MRIs to monitor her condition.
Three and half years later, during one of those routine MRIs, it was discovered that the tumor had returned. This time, Kim saw Henry Ford Hospital neurosurgeon, Ian Lee, M.D. Together they decided that a less invasive option called MRI-guided laser ablation would be her best option. Dr. Lee performed the surgery in February 2016 and Kim began another six rounds of chemotherapy.
But, it would be only a year this time, before the tumor returned again. “That’s the thing about glioblastoma,” Kim said. “It’s relentless.” Kim and her husband Chris found themselves at a support group listening to Steven Kalkanis, M.D., Henry Ford’s chair of neurosurgery and medical director of the Henry Ford Cancer Institute. “Dr. Kalkanis mentioned a new tool that allows surgeons to see tumors better during surgery. We were very curious,” said Kim.
It was a clinical trial for 5-ALA or Gleolan, a complex drug taken a few hours before surgery. The drug reacts with glioblastoma cells, turning them a bright neon pink under a special blue light, allowing surgeons to see more of the tumor during a resection. Kim was quickly enrolled in the trial and her third surgery took place at Henry Ford Hospital in May 2017, using both the 5-ALA and Henry Ford’s intraoperative MRI. Thanks to her participation in the trial, 5-ALA is now FDA-approved to treat patients with aggressive glioblastoma.
It would be less than six months before a routine MRI detected yet another tumor regrowth. Kim still credits the 5-ALA. “I truly believe if Dr. Lee had not used the 5-ALA, I may have had more than one tumor regrow. Instead, I’m facing only one, and it can be treated.”
Kim and her care team, including Tom Mikkelsen, M.D. and James Snyder, D.O., chose a form of high dose radiation called stereotactic radiation therapy. A sample of her tumor was also sent for extended DNA analysis, hoping to zero in on its unique genetic mutation and find a match drug. Soon after, Kim and her husband received the great news that a match drug had been found and she could start taking it after the radiation treatments were completed.
In every twist and turn in Kim’s journey, she continues to press on. “I know how aggressive glioblastoma is and I know it will never really go away. My hope is to live a normal life for a longer period of time,” said Kim. “I feel so blessed to have ended up at Henry Ford. I am certain that I am in the right place. I wouldn’t want to be treated anywhere else.”