Guadalupe Castillo was pregnant with her third baby when her arm began to ache and she began to limp. Carpal tunnel syndrome, her obstetrician said about the arm. Arthritis, another doctor said about the legs. Both should resolve after she gave birth, they told her.
But months after baby Veronica was born, the problems hadn’t gone away. In fact, they had gotten worse. Eventually, Castillo, who was 36, had an MRI. Before Castillo and her husband had even reached the parking lot to go home, the doctor called: “You have some kind of cancer in your neck.”
Fast-forward to April 2011 at St. Joseph’s Hospital, where Castillo had given birth to Veronica and now was undergoing surgery to remove what appeared to be an aggressive cancer that was threatening her life.
The tumor had wrapped itself around several nerves of her right arm, was eating away her cervical vertebrae and was encasing the vertebral artery, which supplies blood to the back of the brain.
At one point in her ordeal, Castillo awoke and realized she could not move her right arm or either of her legs.
Curtis Dickman, MD, an expert in spinal neurosurgery at Barrow Neurological Institute, performed emergency surgery, the first of three operations that each took six to eight hours.
“I remember Dr. Dickman told me, ‘We’re going to go ahead and proceed with this tonight, rather than wait,’ ” Castillo recalls. The cancer appeared to be suddenly putting more pressure on her spinal cord, he told her. “I remember telling the doctor, ‘It’s upset. It’s a mad tumor!’”
Over the next few days, Dr. Dickman and his team meticulously peeled the tumor off of Castillo’s nerves, bones and spinal cord. They also rebuilt the damaged vertebrae of her neck, stabilized the spine with screws, rods and plates, and fused the vertebrae, using bone grafts from her pelvis.
“These were very challenging and delicate surgical procedures, using the latest technologies—vascular embolization, microsurgery, intraoperative CT scanning, computerized surgical navigation, spinal cord monitoring and advanced spinal instrumentation,” Dr. Dickman says.
And they worked. The entire tumor was removed. Castillo has regained nearly complete use of her arms and legs. Perhaps even better news for Castillo, the tumor turned out not to be cancerous. It was an unusually aggressive form of a benign vascular tumor known as a cavernous malformation. Cavernous malformations form only in the brain and spine and, unlike cancers, do not spread to other parts of the body.
After her surgeries, Castillo underwent weeks of physical therapy. She was released—walking—from the hospital on May 31, 2011. At home, she continued therapy, such as learning ways to safely lift her baby, while she regained function in her right arm. By Thanksgiving, she had resumed her duties as a stay-at-home mom, caring for Veronica, who by then was 20 months old, as well as her two sons, then ages 5 and 15.
“I couldn’t be more thankful for the doctors at St. Joe’s,” she says.