Brain cancer survivors Sally Grant and Jodi Novak participate in the 2015 Angels Among Us 5K. (photo by Jim Shaw Photography)
Behind every team photo and supportive hug at the annual Angels Among Us 5K and family fun run are stories of personal struggle and hope, love and new friendship. New teams form. Old ones dissolve. And some, persistent and resolute, stay in it for the long-haul.
For a third year, two women, both of whom have endured their own harrowing battles against brain cancer, are again joining forces to help fund a cure.
Jodi Novak and Sally Grant, who became friends through The Preston Robert Tisch Brain Tumor Center, both beat the odds for their own survival and even went on to bear children.
Married for just three years, Jodi Novak and her airman husband, based in Colorado, were planning to start a family when in June 2001 she was diagnosed with a brain tumor.
“We wanted to have a kid and instead I got a brain tumor,” laughed Novak, a bubbly dental hygienist with a gift for gab. “It totally rocked our world.”
Novak, then 27, had experienced migraines since she was a kid, but after series of four in a 24-hour period, she was convinced that “something wasn’t right” and demanded that her primary care doctor order an MRI.
As it turned out, she had a relatively small ping-pong sized tumor — an epithelioid glioblastoma (GBM). Because it was caught early she was able to have it surgically removed before the cancer had a chance to spread.
When Novak’s oncologist couldn’t give her an estimate for how long she might live beyond surgery, she and her husband went online and searched her tumor type, learned about GBM research being done at Duke and fired off an email to neuro-oncologist Henry Friedman, MD, asking his advice about her case.
Friedman quickly got in touch; advising her to continue with the seven weeks of post-surgery radiation treatments she was getting in Colorado and then recommending she come to Duke.
“We saw Dr. Henry on October 8, 2001. I can’t remember people’s birthdays but this date is ingrained in my brain; I can’t forget it,” said Novak, who from that point on followed a Friedman-designed treatment plan, which included a mix of chemotherapy drugs, taken back home, plus regular follow-ups at Duke. “I took my last dose of chemo in Dec. 2002 and everything has been clear since then.”
About half of the nearly 25,000 new cases of primary malignant brain tumors diagnosed yearly are glioblastomas, the deadliest form of brain cancer. According to the American Brain Tumor Association, the median survival rate for these patients is only 14.6 months, though there have been some rare cases of patients living from 10 to 20 years.
Because of her tumor and subsequent treatment, Novak had to wait several years after her diagnosis to conceive. Now 43, she is a busy mother of two young girls, age five and eight. She draws strength from her faith, her family, and the women in her Bible study group.
Sally Grant was diagnosed with glioblastoma in Dec. 2009 during her first year teaching in New Orleans. She said she figured her disoriented thoughts were simply a result of “going crazy” trying to set up her new classroom and unpack their apartment following a move from Indiana. That was not the case.
“While not many people would welcome this diagnosis, it’s especially hard to receive when you’re the 38-year-old mother of an almost two-year-old daughter,” she wrote in a blog she kept to share her journey with supportive friends and family.