Leslie Wegener recoils at the thought. “Nothing," she said, "could have prepared me for the mask.”
That’s the way she describes the ordeal of undergoing 30 cancer treatments that began more than four years ago.
Wegener was stricken with a rare cancer that shook her world upside down. Fortunately, her storm clouds had silver linings.
A resident of Rancho Santa Margarita, Wegener will be taking part Saturday in the annual Orange County Brain Tumor Walk in Anaheim where the team of 10 she leads will help raise money for the National Brain Tumor Society.
“It was torture at first,” Wegener, 27, said of the mask that encased her head as she underwent 20-minute TomoTherapy sessions to remove the last 35 percent of a tumor in her brain.
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In TomoTherapy, radiation oncologists create a 3D map of the tumor's size, shape and location, then zap the tumor using the precise location and intensity of the radiation beams. It’s one of those advancements that is the result of research that benefits from such fundraising events as this weekend.
Getting rid of the first 65 percent of the tumor was no picnic, either. A seven-hour craniotomy came Christmas eve in 2007, just three days after a whirlwind set of events that led to the discovery of a malignant hemangiopericytoma, a rare form of cancer.
"I'm so glad we didn't dismiss it or I tried to be a hero," said Wegener, who was 22 at the time and was working and taking classes at Saddleback College. "Even though I didn't tell my mom immediately about the headaches then, if I have a headache now, I'm in the doctor's office."
At home with her parents in Coto de Caza, Carol and Stuart Fels, Leslie dropped a glass of water in the kitchen. Her left arm had gone completely numb, and she then confided that she had begun having what she described as “crushing headaches.”
Their neighbor, Roseann Tanaka, reached out to her good friend Dr. Michael Muhonen. Tanaka described the symptoms, and Muhonen said Wegener needed an MRI immediately.
“I thought they were crazy,” Wegener said.
They weren’t crazy, and Wegener is a good example of not dismissing a doctor’s recommendation.
“I will never forget hearing the words, ‘We have found a mass,’ “ she said.
Wegener was promptly admitted to St. Joseph Hospital in Orange and had a three-hour biopsy. Three days later was the craniotomy, which looks as bad as it sounds. The tumor was deep in her brain near the optic nerve and pituitary gland. When she awoke, she said, “I was in a lot of pain. I tried my hardest to keep an upbeat attitude. Having family and friends with me for every minute made it easier."
Wegener’s head was shaved at the front, her scalp stapled from ear to ear. A little more than a month later, she began the TomoTherapy treatments and that battle with the mask.
She also began physical therapy at Balance Rehabilitation in Mission Viejo. Her left side was weak and her balance was off.
But she clicked with her therapist, Mark Wegener. Not only did she improve quickly, almost a year ago Wegener married him.
“He has been so supportive and is proof that good things can come from troubling situations,” said Wegener, a 2002 graduate of Capistrano Valley High.
She has been cancer free for four years, though she still continues once a year to have an MRI just to be sure.
“I’ve learned a valuable life lesson,” she said. “You can’t take life for granted. I am truly lucky to be alive.”
Two years ago, Wegener earned over $5,000 for the walk. She missed last year’s event because it was the weekend she was getting married. But she looks forward to gathering at Angel Stadium with others and taking another step toward stamping out cancer. “I would like to pay it forward by donating to this great cause,” she said. She has raised about $1,500 so far.
And if you happen to be there, just look for her team dressed in powder blue t-shirts.
It’s named “Lucky Leslie.”
Editor’s Note: To donate to the National Brain Tumor Society through Leslie Wegener’s team, click here. To find out more information about brain tumors and the National Brain Tumor Society, click here.