By Renee Beasley Jones, The Messenger-Inquirer
Owensboro, KY (AP) – A long scar stretches across the top of Todd Self’s head, starting above his right ear. The line continues until somewhere above his left eye.
That scar is the only visible sign of his miraculous medical journey.
This year, Self celebrates his 10-year survival anniversary after being diagnosed with glioblastoma multiforme – the brain tumor that took Arizona Sen. John McCain’s life last year. Former Massachusetts Sen. Ted Kennedy died of glioblastoma in 2009. Both men survived a little more than a year after diagnosis.
The American Cancer Society reports the median length of survival among adults with glioblastoma is 12 to 18 months.
In Self’s age group – 20 to 44 – only 19 percent live five years.
A mere 5 percent of survivors live longer than that.
Glioblastoma, a very aggressive form of brain tumor, has the lowest survival rate of all brain cancers listed on the ACS site. Self was diagnosed with grade IV, which is the most aggressive.
In the last decade, Self has met many people with the same diagnosis. The longest any of them survived was 14 months.
“When I ask my oncologist why I’m still alive, he says, `I don’t know,’ “ Self said.
Symptoms and surgery
Self, who was 32 years old at the time of his diagnosis, played golf, rode mountain bike and shot hoops with friends.
“I was in the peak of my health with good exercise habits and good eating habits,’’ he said.
Over a period of about 10 months prior to diagnosis, Self noticed his activity level slowly decreasing. His energy ebbed, and he packed on about 10 pounds.
His wife, Jamie, found that odd. The two fell in love during English classes at Apollo High School.
She’d known him for many years and teasingly related his energy level and attention span to that of a squirrel.
Then, in May 2009, he started to smell something like ammonia at least once a day. The smell came while he showered, drove his vehicle and sat by his wife on the couch.
The smell would last a few seconds. Self would look at her and ask, “Do you smell that?’’
Little did he know he was experiencing mini-strokes during those episodes.
The final onslaught was a series of headaches. Three solid weeks of them.
Self suffered from sinus troubles in the past, so he chalked it up to allergies or sinuses. Also, during that time, his eye doctor changed his eyeglass’ prescription, which can cause headaches.
But the headaches turned into migraines that lasted for days. After an eight-day migraine, Todd Self left work early and headed home.
“It was worse than anything I had ever had to that point,’’ he said.
He had been too nauseated to eat earlier in the day, so he popped into a Lewisport convenience store to buy a soda and candy bar. Before he reached the counter, he collapsed.
That was June 17, 2009.
The Selfs attend First Free Will Baptist Church in Owensboro. They knew a nurse who attended there.
“She had missed a few months of church, and when she walked through the door that night, I started crying,’’ Jamie Self said. “God said, `Go talk to her. She will tell you exactly what to do.’ “
The nurse advised them to go to the emergency department at Vanderbilt University Medical Center. They made the trip the next day.
Doctors at Vanderbilt confirmed a mass on Todd Self’s brain.
On June 23, 2009, Dr. Kyle Weaver, a neurosurgeon, performed a 6 1/2-hour surgery to remove a tumor the diameter of a hot dog and more than 3 inches long.
Todd Self — with a wife and 5-year-old daughter — was told he wouldn’t live until Labor Day without the surgery.
After the surgery, the neurosurgeon said it would be a miracle if Todd Self didn’t experience some left-side paralysis.
“I’m thinking, `Will I need a wheelchair? Am I going to be able to ride a bike? Will I be able to teach my daughter how to ride?’ “ he said.
Less than 30 hours later, Todd Self checked out of the hospital with no paralysis.
Three weeks later, the dire diagnosis came — glioblastoma multiforme grade IV. Family members were told to expect Todd Self to live six to eight months.
“This is when our faith was really put to the test,’’ Jamie Self said.
Treatment proved aggressive — 172 chemotherapy and 30 radiation treatments.
“It’s a miracle the chemo didn’t kill me,’’ Todd Self said. “Cancer makes it easy to give up.’’
Today, Todd Self works part-time in IT. He hopes to return to full-time employment as soon as possible. Jamie Self is a curriculum coordinator at Sutton Elementary.
More importantly, there has been no sign of his cancer returning.
The Selfs credit divine healing for his miraculous survival.
“I did nothing to deserve or earn that healing,’’ Todd Self added. “It was simply unmerited favor.’’
Image: Todd Self today