Jennifer Sugioka. Brain Tumor Survivor.
“Without Dr. Martin, Dr. Liau and the support of my family, I wouldn’t be here to tell my story. Now I cherish each moment, each day.”– Jennifer Sugioka
It was during her first year at Loyola Law School that 23 year-old Jennifer first started noticing the headaches. Just before final exams, she was walking downstairs to her car when her legs gave out. Fortunately, a friend was there to catch her and to convince her it was time to see a doctor. “They gave me an MRI,” Jennifer recalls. “Two hours later, I received the most difficult call of my life. I was told I had a brain tumor.”
The diagnosis – glioblastoma multiforme, the deadliest kind of brain cancer – was devastating, and the outlook was grim: Jennifer was told that, in all likelihood, she had between nine and 12 months to live.
Jennifer decided to seek a second opinion and, through a close friend, was referred to Dr. Neil Martin, chairman of neurosurgery at UCLA. “Almost immediately, Dr. Martin realized that the tumor was wrapped around an artery near the speech center in my brain, and that taking it out entirely, as another surgeon suggested, would be the worst thing to do.” After extensive brain mapping (a cornerstone of precision brain surgery pioneered at UCLA to minimize damage to healthy areas that control key functions), Dr. Martin safely removed the largest possible portion of the tumor – and Jennifer’s ability to speak remained intact.
After a successful surgery, Jennifer was offered the option to enroll in Dr. Linda Liau’s brain cancer vaccine clinical trial. She underwent the traditional treatments for cancer: radiation and chemotherapy. At the same time, surgeon-scientists at UCLA began preparing her personalized vaccine. Tumor cells that were removed during Jennifer’s surgery were put into culture and grown in the lab. Then cells from her immune system were trained to recognize her tumor.
When injected back into the body, Jennifer’s immune system would be activated to seek out any remaining cancer. Two months post surgery, she received her custom brain cancer vaccine shots – much like a flu vaccine – over the course of two weeks.
“It’s my dream someday to see all of our patients survive – and thrive – as Jennifer has.”
– Dr. Linda Liau
Amazingly, that was more than a decade ago, and Jennifer has the distinction of being among the rare group of people who are long-term brain cancer survivors today. And, though her road to recovery continues as she dedicates each day to maintaining her health, she is grateful: “Without Dr. Martin, Dr. Liau and the support of my family, I wouldn’t be here to tell my story. Now I cherish each moment, each day.” Dr. Liau is quick to return the compliment. “We are all so proud of Jennifer and how dedicated she is to being well and living her life,” she says. “It’s my dream someday to see all of our patients survive – and thrive – as Jennifer has.”