Marie-Lise Tremblay, 37, is categorical when she speaks of Dr. Kevin Petrecca, a neurosurgeon at The Neuro and a researcher in its Brain Tumour Research Centre.
“If not for Dr. Petrecca,” says Tremblay, “I would be dead.”
One day last year, Tremblay was feeling fine, walking to work at a Montreal engineering firm, joyfully thinking about the birthday of her two-year-old son. The next day, she was in the hospital, where within a week she learned that a potentially fatal tumour was growing in the back of her head.
“I hadn’t suspected a thing until I awoke in the middle of the night with a massive headache and feeling completely disoriented,” recently recalled Tremblay. “I was immediately taken to the hospital, where for three days I underwent tests. A week later, on Sept. 19, I had the results of a biopsy.”
The diagnosis was glioblastoma, the most aggressive form of adult brain tumour.
“I didn’t know anything about brain tumours and never suspected that I might have one. My family has no history of brain tumours either.”
Doctors at the hospital where her tests were made told her that surgery was not an option and that she had few treatment options. Tremblay nevertheless was not going to give up.
Through acquaintances, she learned about the work of Dr. Petrecca, a neurosurgeon specializing in glioblastoma and other brain tumours. Not long after contacting him, she sat in his office as he looked over her brain scans.
On Sept. 29, just ten days after the biopsy report, Dr. Petrecca performed brain surgery on Tremblay. He employed the Raman spectroscopy probe, a device that allows a surgeon to detect cancer cells to a high degree of accuracy virtually in real time during the surgical operation. The probe, which was in clinical trials at The Neuro, was developed by Dr. Petrecca and Dr. Frédéric Leblond of Polytechnique Montréal.
“Dr. Petrecca succeeded in removing 98 per cent of the tumour cells,” says Tremblay. “That’s far more than I ever expected. He spent a long time minutely removing everything he could.”
After a short post-operative rest, Tremblay underwent chemotherapy and radiation therapy to eliminate any remaining cancerous cells: six weeks of daily chemotherapy sessions, and then weekly sessions of radiation therapy for a month in which she was given the highest dose possible. Weekly follow up sessions continued for the first half of this year.
“It wasn’t pleasant. I felt fatigue and secondary effects. Today I have about 60 per cent of the energy that I once had.”
Tremblay is also undergoing rehabilitation therapy for some cognitive problems linked to the ablation of brain tissue from her occipital lobe — difficulty reading, short-term memory blackouts, vision problems, weakened concentration. The stress of her medical situation also causes bouts of anxiety that interfere with her sleep.
“But at least I’m alive! My priority now is to rest adequately to spend time with my son.”
Tremblay is also continuing her yoga classes, although at a more relaxed pace than before.
“Slowly but surely, I’m getting back on my feet. I feel like a torch bearer for the sick who don’t feel as well as I do. And I want to underline Dr. Petrecca’s work and its importance for people like me. It was real luck that I was able to find him.”
Although Tremblay’s cancer is in remission, Dr. Petrecca continues to follow up her case, meeting with her every few months to see if any cancer has reappeared.
Says Tremblay: “He’s my guardian angel.”