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Ivy Blog

Brain Tumor Diagnosis Leads to a Life of Adventure

Marie skiing
Marie Donahue

Marie Donahue is living life a little bit differently these days. 

Recently she’s skied the Matterhorn in Switzerland, spent three days hiking through the Pyrenees National Park in France, climbed an active volcano, and scuba dived in cenotes in Mexico.

Prior to these adventures, Marie was focused on her career. She earned a master’s degree in international economics in England, then a PhD in psychology. In her consulting business, she had a full list of clients, offering social behavior research and guidance. She also served as an officer in the United States Navy. 

Things changed when a precautionary MRI showed a large mass on her brain. Her doctor recommended an MRI of her adrenal and pituitary glands after some suspicious blood work results. Her endocrinologist called the same day she got the MRI and asked her to come in for an appointment right away. Red flags went up for Marie. 

“I was absolutely terrified,” she remembers. 

Marie's brain imaging

She called the imaging center and asked for her records before the appointment. The radiologist’s report said the mass was a suspected meningioma brain tumor. Marie dove into research, reading everything she could find about meningiomas. 

Much of that research came from Dr. Nader Sanai, the director of the Ivy Brain Tumor Center and director of Neurosurgical Oncology at Barrow Neurological Institute. Dr. Sanai has published more than 200 peer-reviewed research manuscripts and has delivered more than 200 national and international lectures on brain tumor research. 

The large tumor was lodged next to her motor and sensory cortex. Brain surgery posed a risk for impaired movement and functioning. The tumor was also pressing against vessels in her sinuses, presenting an even greater risk for complications after surgery. 

Marie quickly decided Dr. Sanai was the most qualified neurosurgeon for the job. She was comforted by his extensive portfolio of research and because he focused specifically on brain tumor surgery. 

Overcoming the Obstacles 

During surgery, the tissue from Marie’s tumor was tested to determine the pathology and its genetic composition. It was, as suspected, a meningioma – grade 1, benign and slow growing. Marie remembers breathing a sigh of relief.

“The worst thing is waiting,” Marie says. “Waiting for surgery, waiting for pathology, waiting for the next scan. It feels like every day is an eternity while you’re waiting.”

While Marie’s meningioma was a grade 1 and benign, some meningiomas can be higher grade and cancerous. The Ivy Center has a variety of clinical trials available for these types of aggressive tumors.

After a 9-hour surgery, Marie could not feel or move the right side of her body, an expected surgical deficit. She worked hard to regain movement and control, doing daily exercises, and within three months Marie was back to herself and fit for service in the Navy and in her civilian career again. 

That’s when she began to look at life a little differently. 

A Shift in Priorities 

Marie Donahue in military uniform

“I’ve fit so much more life into the last year and a half than I did before my brain tumor,” Marie says. “You start not taking your time for granted anymore, or your health and your body.” 

She’s completed three sets of military training exercises. Her commitment to the Navy is even stronger now, as they were incredibly supportive throughout her brain tumor journey. Marie has hiked, skied and backpacked her way across nine countries and has gone on dozens of adventures. One of her most exciting experiences was getting certified to scuba dive and exploring the underwater cenotes in Mexico. Cenotes are large caves or sinkholes that are filled with cool, clear rainwater and groundwater, usually found in sedimentary limestone rock in the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico.  

Traveling and experiencing life outside her comfort zone has always been enjoyable for Marie but now it’s a priority. She’s quit postponing adventures and gotten rid of the I’ll-do-it-later mentality. 

“I’ve prioritized moments of adventure, health, learning, and love much higher and with much less hesitation than before,” she says.  

Positivity and Perspective 

Marie credits her positive attitude to overcome her brain tumor to the supportive community around her. Her family and friends, and the care team at the Ivy Center, never let her get down or discouraged. Someone was always there to pick her up, she says. 

“Attitude is everything. If you have an attitude that you’re moving forward and things are good, your perspective on things can change your outcome,” she says. 

Marie will continue to get annual scans of her brain to watch for a tumor recurrence. In the meantime, she plans to travel to Nepal and the Philippines. She’ll continue serving her country and supporting her health. 

“My future plans are to continue not taking another moment for granted. I’ll be living and loving my life, and the people in it, to my deepest capacity,” she says. 

Marie Donahue selfie

This story is for general health information only and is not meant to be used as medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Please consult your physician or healthcare provider before beginning any treatment protocol or with any questions. This story reflects the health status of this particular patient at the time the story was written and photographs were taken. The patient’s condition may have changed over time.

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