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Her Long Road Back To The Start Line After A Brain Tumor

College runner Shannon Wright shares her unbelievable story of being diagnosed with and eventually recovering from a brain tumor.

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The Lehigh women’s cross country team lined up, anxiously waiting for the gun to sound. The huddle of fit young women seemed indistinguishable, but one had a much longer road to the start line.

Initial Symptoms
The Mountain Hawks were practicing at the Allentown Parkway on a hot and steamy Monday in mid-August of 2012 when Shannon Wright (then a sophomore) collapsed. Everyone thought Wright’s symptoms were related to the heat. The sophomore from Lewisburg, Pennsylvania appeared to respond to electrolytes, but as Shannon would soon realize, the problem was much more significant than inadequate hydration.

“The doctors thought I might be hypoglycemic,” said Wright. “It presented with dehydration, hypoglycemia-type symptoms, but it just felt very different. I couldn’t keep my concentration and couldn’t keep focused in a way that I hadn’t ever felt before. I knew by the following day that something more was going on.”

Things became scarier as the week progressed.

“When I was in Rathbone (dining hall) the next day, I was still feeling shaky, disoriented and was really fatigued,” said Wright. “I wasn’t just tired; I couldn’t keep my focus on anything. My balance was really off and everything sounded really loud. I tried to pick up my spoon, but couldn’t.”

Wright found herself in the hospital that night, but nothing was found and she was released. The following day, she was at a friend’s apartment when she again became really shaky.

“My friend was trying to talk to me and I wasn’t understanding what she was saying,” said Wright. “I couldn’t really walk. I wasn’t dizzy, but just couldn’t get my bearings.”

Shannon went back to the hospital for an MRI on Friday, but due to a misread, nothing came from it.

“That’s when things started getting really frustrating,” she said. “They knew something was very wrong, but didn’t know what.”

While all this was happening, Wright’s mindset remained typical of a competitive Division I athlete.

“I was weirdly calm about getting a brain MRI,” said Shannon. “My mindset was, let’s figure this out because I have a race next week. I was still in denial. It’s probably good that I didn’t know the scope of what was about to happen.”

Withdrawing From Lehigh
Soon, things got to a point where Wright had no choice but to withdraw from Lehigh. She wasn’t able to focus, never mind get to class.

“It’s all pretty much a blur,” said Wright. “After withdrawing, I went to a neurologist at my home hospital where the doctors did a bunch of EEGs. They thought I might be epileptic and I had really bad nystagmus (involuntary eye movement). I couldn’t really focus on anything. I had a long-term EEG, so I was in the hospital for a couple days.”

After ruling out epileptic activity and a host of other neurological disorders, doctors seemed to be at a loss and were forced to adopt a more passive strategy. Wright was, in her words, “put on hold” while doctors sought the underlying cause of her symptoms.

Wright was at home that fall, unable to drive or do much of anything. Finally, in late October, an incident led to her eventual diagnosis.

“I was in the car with my mom and became unresponsive,” said Wright. “We switched neurologists. My new doctor thought I might have some severe inner-ear issues, but also ordered another MRI to get a better picture of what might be going on. I received my second MRI on November 11, about three months after I became symptomatic.”

Wright was in a follow-up appointment when she received the news.

“The nurse was looking through my MRI and all of a sudden said oh… Then she got the doctor,” said Wright. “There was a mass. It was benign and a relatively common tumor, a cyst in the pineal region. However, mine was an uncommonly large size.

“They were trying not to be too worried and wanted to rule out other potential causes before going ahead with surgery,” she continued. “I remember thinking that it finally makes sense. I was so frustrated at that point. I was a little naïve about the whole process, but I was definitely relieved there was something that, in theory, could be fixed.”

Shannon faced a new obstacle due to the difficult nature of the removal surgery. Thankfully, the tumor wasn’t malignant, but symptoms due to the location of the mass greatly affected Shannon’s quality of life.

“I was very symptomatic, but not terminal or neurodegenerative,” said Wright. “It significantly impacted my daily life, but it was very deeply engrained in my midbrain. You had to come in all the way from the back and go through a lot of brain tissue to reach the tumor. There’s very significant risk with this procedure, and complications that could lead to lasting disability in terms of mobility or cognition, and even death.

“The first time I saw the neurosurgeon who ended up doing my surgery, his recommendation was to not go through with the surgery because he thought the risk was too great given we couldn’t be 100 percent sure it would alleviate all the symptoms.”

Back To Lehigh
Doctors were hesitant to act too rashly, so Shannon was again in a holding pattern. Her doctors recommended she go back to Lehigh for the spring (2013) semester, all while keeping close tabs on her condition.

While Shannon was able to return to school, her symptoms continued to worsen. A strong core of friends watched over Wright almost 24-7 to make sure she was okay.

“I don’t remember a whole lot from that semester,” she admitted, although somehow she earned a perfect 4.0 GPA that spring.

“Those kids were heroes for Shannon,” said Lehigh head coach Deb Utesch. “She had such limited focus time between bouts of losing focus. I don’t even know if she was totally conscious of how much that group of friends invested in helping her.”

One of those friends, and her roommate at the time, was Elizabeth Sinclair. The situation was extremely stressful and took a toll on her, too. Sinclair felt like she carried the responsibility and burden to make sure her best friend was okay. She didn’t even realize the magnitude of what she was doing until one instance.

“Shannon would just topple over sideways, so I would walk with her and have my arm around her – not fully carry her, but give her a lot of support,” said Sinclair. “One time, I had hurt my knee, so couldn’t physically help and had to ask another friend for assistance. We had gotten Shannon back upstairs to her room. She was lying on the couch and my friend looked at me and asked, ‘How do you do this?’

“Until that point, I didn’t fully realize how much I was doing,” Sinclair continued. “I didn’t really stop and think about what I was doing until I saw the look on her face.”

Sinclair wasn’t sleeping more than a couple hours per night as her running, and daily life, suffered. She even went through tests with Lehigh sports medicine staff, thinking she may be iron deficient, have Lyme disease or mononucleosis.

Sinclair didn’t have any illnesses. It was the pressures and stresses from the semester that began taking a toll on her.

“Shannon was getting worse and worse,” said Sinclair.

No Other Choice
Wright had a follow-up MRI that February and her doctors noticed the mass had grown marginally bigger. It was filling the entire third ventricle and was blocking off the flow of cerebrospinal fluid, causing her brain to swell.

Because her condition still wasn’t immediately life-threatening, surgeons were still hesitant to perform such an invasive procedure. Wright’s neurologist decided to take her case and present it to the American Association of Neurologists annual conference to obtain recommendation for surgical resection (surgery to remove abnormal tissue). After relaying the conference’s opinion of Wright’s condition to her neurosurgeon, the decision was made that surgery was the best option.

Once doctors gave the go-ahead for surgery, Wright didn’t hesitate, despite the risks.

“I remember they gave me what must be the world’s heaviest pen to sign the consent form. Sometimes, I couldn’t grip things very well, so I struggled with that pen like you wouldn’t believe,” she said. “Out of everything that year, this moment is crystal-clear to me. There I am, potentially signing my life away, and I’m annoyed about their choice of writing utensil. But I was sick of being sick. I was ready to finally do something about it.”

Wright finished her semester at Lehigh and went in for the 8.5 hour surgery on May 8, 2013, three days after her last final exam.

“The Lehigh Athletic department in conjunction with some other organizations Shannon was involved with on campus (FCA and Intervarsity Christian Fellowship) set up a prayer chain for the day of her surgery,” said Utesch. “People could sign up for a 10-minute block of time to pray throughout that day until Shannon was out of surgery. The department’s response was amazing with people from all over campus taking the time to pray Shannon through this.”

Coincidentally, surgery was the same day as the Lehigh track and field banquet.

Surgery was a success, which was a relief to Wright’s Mountain Hawk teammates.

“I remember getting the text from Shannon’s mom that she was in recovery and the doctors felt the surgery was a success. I was so relieved and was able to announce to her teammates at the banquet that she had gotten through the surgery,” said Utesch. “The room erupted with cheers.”

Despite the uncertainly going into surgery, Wright noticed an immediate difference.

“My nystagmus was gone immediately,” she said. “I called some of my friends when I woke up, and even though I was still pretty drugged, they could immediately tell the difference in the clarity of my speech and ability to focus. My gait was normal and I could walk independently.”

Typical protocol for this surgery is to be placed in the Intensive Care Unit for a couple days and then remain in general care for the remainder of the week, but because Wright’s vitals remained stable throughout the entire procedure, she bypassed the ICU and was discharged less than 48 hours later.

However, recovery was far from over.

Recovery Process
Shannon’s condition continued to improve, but the doctors warned that complete recovery from such a procedure typically takes one full year. The severity of the surgical trauma inflicted would take time to recover, similar to a severe concussion, and she could expect to experience fatigue, difficultly concentrating and other symptoms over the course of her recovery.

The tumor had destroyed Wright’s pineal gland, which could significantly affect her circadian rhythm. The fractured and repinned skull also needed time to heal. A small stroke had caused some visual deficits on her left side, extreme light sensitivity, as well as extremely debilitating headaches which could strike at any time.

However, due to a combination of stubborn resolve and type-A personality, Wright jumped right back into everyday activities.

“I was amazed how quickly she was released by the doctors and allowed to start training,” said Utesch. “In my opinion, she took on too much, too soon. She is a full-fledged go-getter in everything she does.”

“I started running three weeks afterwards, right after I got all 45 staples out,” she said. “That was not a good decision. I started running as soon as they’d let me and I was very impatient with myself through the initial recovery procedure. I thought I should be ready to go. The tumor’s gone, time to move on. Thinking back, I definitely should have given myself more time.”

Wright’s personality is usually beneficial, but in this case, it only led to unrealistic goals and increased frustration. She returned to a full-time athletic and academic schedule just three months after her surgery.

“I didn’t complete a full training schedule, but I got some pretty good mileage in over the summer,” said Wright. “No one had any expectations of me, but I had a lot of expectations of myself – academically and athletically. I came in with a head of steam with these absurdly high expectations given my situation and I was so frustrated when they weren’t met.”

While symptoms associated with the tumor were gone, complications in the recovery process remained. She still got dizzy at times and had to consistently wear sunglasses because her eyes were very sensitive.

“I couldn’t see very well on my left side, so sometimes I couldn’t see things on the grass and would trip,” said Wright. “I was a pretty difficult person to be around that year. I was very busy with academics and athletics, stressed out about everything and so frustrated to still not be 100 percent healthy. Every time I got dizzy, excessively tired or couldn’t finish a workout, I saw it as a failure – even if it was perfectly justified given my situation. I felt like I was letting down everyone who had helped me through this.

“It was also scary to think, ‘what if it’s back?’ Now that I knew what it would be like, I couldn’t go through that again,” she continued. “My prior courage had been born partially of necessity and largely of ignorance. I saw how everything had affected the people that I care about. I wanted to be better, for me and for them, but refusing to acknowledge the length of the recovery process didn’t make it any shorter.”

By November of her junior year (15 months after initial symptoms and six months after surgery), Shannon hit the wall, both physically and mentally. As the school year progressed, things continued to go downhill, especially during the spring semester.

“Shannon was in a downward spiral, emotionally and mentally,” said Sinclair. “Physically helping her sophomore year was relatively easy. It was stressful, yes, but nothing compared to trying to help her emotionally. I was at such a loss regarding how to help. She was angry and scared about how much her personality had changed, and at the time, thought she might never truly be back to her own self.

“Shannon was ultimately the one who had to deal with everything. I could walk away from everything, but she never had that luxury,” Sinclair continued.

Persistent dizziness and severe headaches led to another MRI that spring. Nothing worrisome appeared, but that didn’t mean Wright was in the clear.

“I wasn’t running or feeling well,” said Shannon. “I was on and off headache and sleeping medications (which made me drowsy and irritable), due to the removal of the pineal gland. I was in constant fear of waking up with another headache. The first time I had one, I was convinced I was dying. I said my prayers. The dizziness, which had been improving, increased to the point where I couldn’t get through a workout.

“I thought, ‘this is supposed to be over, I’m not supposed to be sick anymore, why am I still dealing with this?’ I was angry and scared. I felt so isolated and hopeless.”

The Turnaround
After making it through the year, an exhausted Wright knew something needed to change. It all started with a trip to her family doctor, who discovered that a severe sinus infection in November had failed to resolve and her inflamed sinuses were putting pressure on the surgical site, causing the persistent dizziness.

Antibiotics and rest fixed the problem. A trip to the neurologist led to an experimental vitamin treatment protocol for her headaches, which resolved the issue without undesirable side effects.

“I finally started to feel healthy, energetic and like myself again,” said Wright. “Then, I really needed to get away from my support system for a while. I love my friends and family all so much, but I had become dependent out of necessity and it wasn’t fair or good for anyone involved. I needed to redefine who I was as a capable, independent, fully-functional, healthy person.”

Wright began this past summer by working at an overnight camp with youngsters who suffered brain injuries, including those caused by stroke, tumor, AVM (Arteriovenous Malformation) rupture and surgical trauma.

“There was a range of very significant deficits in terms of mobility, communication and capability to perform independent tasks,” said Wright. “It was a very demanding and challenging time, but it definitely put my own situation in perspective in terms of how fortunate I had been to make such a functional recovery.

“Working with these awesome, resilient kids who may never regain the ability to live an independent lifestyle, helped teach me patience,” she continued. “My body was doing everything it could to recover, and it was doing a great job. It just needed a more realistic time frame than I wanted to give.”

From there, Shannon decided she needed to get a bit further away, going on to travel through Central America by herself. She admits it may not have been advisable, but it ended up serving an incredible purpose.

“There was no safety net,” she said. “I was so used to having a fallback, but I didn’t anymore. I regained a lot of confidence in myself that I had lost over the course of my illness.”

A combination of factors helped Wright get over the proverbial hump, but the year mark from surgery proved crucial as well.

“I finally understood what the doctors were saying,” said Wright. “It took time, which at first, I was unwilling to give. Recovery was a comprehensive process: physically, mentally and emotionally. Messing with your brain can affect you for quite a while. I’m grateful that I had the support and guidance to muddle through when I was in way over my head.”

The Old Shannon Is Back
This fall, Wright is back and better than ever. The Mountain Hawk runners and coaching staff could immediately tell the old Shannon was back.

“At a senior meeting prior to preseason starting, Shannon stated to her classmates ‘I had a chip on my shoulder last year and I put it there,'” said Utesch. “At that point, I knew I was dealing with the old Shannon.”

Wright finished the first race of her senior season, and earned a personal record time (by 45 seconds), at the Lafayette dual meet on Sept. 13.

Sinclair has seen a drastic change in Wright as well. During Shannon’s junior season, there was a hesitancy among the team to bring up her surgery, or bring up any issues in general, because any issue seemed small compared to what she had gone through.

“The younger girls now feel like she’s more open to hearing about things,” said Sinclair. “She’s much more involved with the team this year, so everyone can see the real Shannon. Those were two terrible years for both of us, but we overcame it and still use the experience as an opportunity to grow.”

Career Aspirations
After all she’s been through, you would think Wright would want to stay as far away from a hospital as possible. In fact, it’s quite the opposite.

This experience has motivated Shannon to pursue a career in medicine. The Biology major with a 3.95 cumulative GPA hopes to attend medical school and eventually help individuals who were in her shoes.

“I think I really discovered that this is where my passion lies,” said Wright. “I know what it’s like to be healthy and normal then all of a sudden, have all of that taken away from you. I’ve experienced how it affects not only individuals who are robbed of their lifestyle and independence, but also how it affects the people around them.

“I really hope I can use this experience going forward in my career as a doctor,” she continued. “I’m in a unique position to have a personal perspective on healthcare issues, combined with the skill set to provide patients with the best medical care possible.”

Because of her experiences, Wright’s focus is on providing truly compassionate care.

“I think the danger you can run into sometimes in the medical field is that you stop seeing your patients as people,” said Wright. “It’s really dangerous to start thinking of them as a chart, diagnosis, treatment protocol or liability risk. Charts are paper; people are people.

“The reason I eventually got the care I did was because a few doctors decided to see me for who I was and not what they thought I had,” Wright continued. “I’m committed to doing the same.”

Story Of Resilience
Although Wright’s story is one of incredible resilience, the resilience doesn’t end with her. Resiliency was evident in all those around her, especially with close friends like Sinclair.

“There are people who literally dragged me through some of the darkest times of my life,” said Wright. “I am no hero, I’m not a robot and I’m not superhuman. There were times when I was ready to quit – not just running, but everything. I was looking for an easy way out, any way out, because I just couldn’t fight anymore.”

However, the people around Shannon were the crutches who wouldn’t let her fall.

“These people never gave up on me. They believed in me when I didn’t believe in anything, and supported the decisions that ultimately led to me getting back on my feet,” said Wright. “I know people tend to be impressed with my strength and resiliency, but the reality is that I’m human, just like everyone else.

“If you’re going to be impressed, be impressed by the astonishing resolve and compassion of the people around me.”

When she needed help the most, Wright’s Lehigh family was there for her. Now, she is back with that same family, toeing the start line and waiting for the gun to sound.

“I’ll never forget how these people were always there for me, including during my less visible, but more difficult struggles over the course of my recovery,” she said. “I could never be grateful enough. I am extremely fortunate to be healthy and competing again, and even more so to be surrounded by people who I know will have my back, no matter what.

“This isn’t how I pictured my college career would play out, but I’ve grown wiser and stronger over the course of this experience. I finally feel like it’s all behind me and there are much greater things ahead. I can’t predict the future and if there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that life loves to throw curveballs. For now, I’ll enjoy where I am and continue to be thankful for every start line.”

Reprinted with permission from Lehigh Sports Media Relations

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