When her upper back started to ache, Manyuen assumed she had pulled a muscle from overextending herself. It seemed to make sense, since she regularly kneaded bread. And although her back continued to ache for the next few months, she attributed the pain to middle age and her muscles recovering more slowly from strain later in life. Then, the pain seemed to go away.
“About a year later, the pain came back and it was more intense,” Manyuen described. “It felt like a knife in my back – it was this sharp, cutting pain.”
She figured the pain would go away like it did last time, but then her legs started to go numb.
“After sitting for a long time on the couch, I would go numb from my waist down,” she explained. “It felt like my legs were asleep. I knew something was wrong but I didn’t think it was serious, so I put off getting it looked at.”
A diagnosis and emergency care
Then, in mid-July 2016 she woke up to numbness and an intense tingling sensation. By the next day, Manyuen needed support to stand, and by day 3 she couldn’t lift herself at all.
“I made an appointment to go to Tufts Medical Center for urgent care but when I tried to get up to get in a cab, I couldn’t walk out of the house,” Manyuen described. “So we called 911.”
As soon as Manyuen arrived at Tufts Medical Center, the Emergency Department team sprang into action with a series of scans to determine the cause of her pain and symptoms.
When the MRI came back, it showed a tumor in the bones of Manyuen’s spine that was pushing on her spinal cord. Further tests showed that the spine tumor was the result of breast cancer that had metastasized.
A team bands together
Manyuen was immediately admitted to the Neuro ICU and started on steroids to decrease the swelling. Meanwhile, Director of the Spine Center Ron Riesenburger, MD reviewed her scans and collaborated with Breast Center specialist Jack Erban, MD to determine the best course of treatment.
“I’m grateful that Tufts is a teaching hospital, because I met Dr. Riesenburger at the same time as some fantastic residents. They explained the surgery and the risks involved,” Manyuen recalls. “Dr. Riesenburger was straight forward and told me that if I wanted to walk again, I needed to undergo emergency surgery to save my leg function. I understood the risks and trusted him completely but reminded him that he needed to do a good job because I have an 80-year-old mother at home to care for.”
Manyuen was scheduled for her 7-hour lifesaving surgery the very next day. The surgery was performed by Dr. Riesenburger and his colleague, Dr. Marie Roguski, a neurosurgeon with additional training in neurosurgical oncology. “Through an extensive operation, I was able to remove the tumor and take the pressure off Manyuen’s spinal cord,” explained Dr. Riesenburger. “Dr. Roguski and Dr. Riesenburger then placed screws and rods to stabilize her spine, which had been weakened by cancer.”
Back on her feet
After the surgery, Manyuen recovered in the ICU and another inpatient floor at Tufts MC for a total of 10 days. She was amazed by the compassionate and caring nurses, including Brian Gates, RN, who went above and beyond to reassure and support her. Manyuen was also frequently visited by Dr. Erban, her oncologist, who helped to create a long term care plan and coordinated the additional treatments that she needed.
“The care was incredible,” said Manyuen. “From the nurses to the oncologists and radiation specialists, they all took the time to explain what was happening to me and care for me as a person. Their confidence and encouragement helped me to remain positive about my future even though I was going through care for a serious illness.”
Manyuen was discharged to rehab and less than two weeks after her surgery, began walking with a walker. However, she had a number of serious treatments ahead of her including:
- A mastectomy performed by Chief of Surgical Oncology Roger Graham, MD
- A minimally invasive surgery to remove her ovaries performed by Chief of Gynecologic Oncology Young Bae Kim, MD
- Radiation therapy coordinated by radiation oncologist Kathryn Huber, MD
Despite all of these obstacles, Manyuen continued to make progress towards resuming her day-to-day life. And less than 3 months after that fateful day when she could barely stand, she was able to walk without assistance.
“I always knew I’d make it back to 100%,” said Manyuen. “I was lucky to have great care and am in good hands with the doctors at Tufts – I saw the top of the top providers. Now, I’m taking better care of my body and am back to living my life. But I know that if anything happens, I can always trust the amazing team at Tufts Medical Center.”