Nancy

Nancy


Nancy has a condition called Neurofibromatosis 1, which often causes tumors on the optic nerve, and Nancy is no exception. Tumors grew in her eyes early on, and following treatment she was left with learning disabilities as well as an array of physical problems, from speech and visual impairment to scoliosis. To complicate matters, Nancy’s family has had to move three times, each time landing her in a new school district. It was a great relief to Nancy’s family when they were referred to Making Headway.
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Through Making Headway, Nancy was able to work with Education Specialist Patricia Weiner, who provided the girl and her family with support and guidance. Ms. Weiner helped Nancy’s teachers and school administrators in each school and district understand her unique needs, and advocated to ensure she received appropriate services every time. An important feature of these services is large print textbooks and other resources to support her visual impairment.

With this strong, knowledgeable support, Nancy made it successfully through elementary school. She recently entered high school, where she continues to get the support she needs, and is doing very well.

Survivors Reunited (Julia & Christine’s Story)

Survivors Reunited (Julia & Christine’s Story)


When I was four and a half months old, I was diagnosed with a low-grade optic pathway glioma. My parents took me to NYU hospital were they met Dr. Epstein and Dr. Wisoff. They were confident that my tumor would be able to be treated through surgery and then chemotherapy. Eighteen and a half months later, with the grace of God and medicine I was able to overcome my brain tumor. Unfortunately, I did suffer vision loss in my right eye and am visually impaired in my left eye.
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Growing up in school was a challenge, to say the least, for me. The other children did not understand what it was like for me to have a disability. They would tease me about my vision and surgical scars to the point where I was bullied all the way through middle school. There were times that the teachers did not know what to do or how to help me to succeed in my work. At times, it felt impossible to get through school, but my family lifted me up, were always there for me, and told me to never give up. Years later, while I was at Caldwell University, my life had changed for the better. I began to pursue my degree in communications and vocal performance. It was at Caldwell that the most amazing thing happened…

Julia and Christine Together Again We were both in the same school where we had met one night in the music wing of the college. What we did not know was that we had met before, twenty-two years ago. One day, we just began talking and I mentioned to her that I was visually impaired from a brain tumor. At that point, Christine informed me that she had a brain tumor as a baby, as well. I asked her where she went for treatment, she said, “NYU.” I asked, “Do you know Dr. Allen?” She nodded her head and asked, “Maya?” We began to cry and called our parents. My mother was at work when I asked, “Hey Mom, do you know a Christine from when I was at NYU?” She responded, “Yes! You girls were roommates in chemotherapy…! She was having a bagel and you were having your bottle!” I said, “Oh my god! We both go to Caldwell U!” It just felt like something out of a movie! I mean, how often does a miracle happen in a lifetime? I survived a brain tumor that was almost impossible to overcome and I made a great friend who knows what this feels like. I really do believe that God puts you through things for a reason.

Arnold

Arnold


Arnold was only five years old when he was diagnosed with a brain tumor. He received six weeks of radiation and eleven weeks of chemotherapy. The chemotherapy was cut short due to a variety of serious side effects include hearing loss and the onset of learning disabilities. When he returned to school, his teachers reported “things he knew before the surgery, he forgot after the surgery”. He also needed to re-learn basic motor skills. Over the years, Making Headway has worked with the family and the school to ensure that Arnold received the best possible education and the services that he needed to achieve his goal of graduating high school.
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Arnold is currently enrolled in a co-teaching integrated classroom in 8th grade. This class has both a general education and special education professional assigned to work with both classified and non-classified students. Arnold will have the same program next year when he transitions to high school. In addition to the integrated class, Arnold receives a series of special services, including: speech, language, and physical therapy; a 1:1 paraprofessional; and special testing accommodations (extended time, questions read to him, etc.).

Over the past year, Arnold has made tremendous progress. With the specialized resources he now receives, his results on both the math and reading state tests improved by over 50%. He is now achieving at grade level and on a Regents Diploma High School track. Every day is still a struggle, but Making Headway and Arnold are working hard to overcome any challenges and achieve his goals.

Carolyn

Carolyn


Carolyn is a hard-working young woman who is currently a sophomore in high school. She is also a brain tumor survivor and lost her father when she was little. Many brain tumor survivors face difficult challenges as a result of surgeries, treatments, and missed time at school. Carolyn was experiencing difficulties after she finally returned to school, including problems with her schoolwork and anxiety about her social life. To help Carolyn, she was referred to Making Headway Education Specialist Sabina Bragg.
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Ms. Bragg worked with the family and realized that at the heart of Carolyn’s struggles there was a common theme: school instruction simply did not meet her unique needs. Ms. Bragg went to the school, conducted staff interviews, and observed Carolyn in several learning environments. Using this information, as well as a previous neuro-psychological evaluation, Ms. Bragg put together a comprehensive presentation for Carolyn’s instructional team at school. She worked with them to develop creative instructional approaches, such as the use of an iPhone to take audio notes instead of written notes, as note-taking was difficult for Carolyn. Ms. Bragg demonstrated how small group instructional tables would provide the special education support that would not only support Carolyn, but also the entire class. Ms. Bragg helped change the mindset in the school, enabling staff to understand that Carolyn’s problems were due to behavioral issues caused by her treatment, and were typical of a child with her complex medical background.

Carolyn continues to show how strong she is despite all that she has been through. Her mother is extremely happy with the progress that she has made and is grateful for Ms. Bragg’s assistance, passion, and expertise.

Alexis

Alexis


I don’t worry about the little, insignificant things anymore
By Alexis Zachem

I am THAT girl who had a brain tumor. Before you start pitying me, let me make one thing abundantly clear. I love being the girl who had a brain tumor. No, not for the attention I get for it, and definitely not for the surgery and recovery. I like who my tumor made me and what it made me realize about myself. Before I became a brain tumor girl I was average. Smart, but never the smartest. Skinny, but definitely not the skinniest. All I wanted was to distinguish myself from everyone around me. I thought I could do this by being the prettiest or smartest, but found myself disappointed that I fell short every time. At the end of freshman year, as I sat on the sidelines of a lacrosse game, I was hit in the nose by a ball traveling 75 miles per hour. I was rushed to the emergency room to have facial reconstruction.
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I thought to myself, what could get worse than this? I can’t have shattered nasal plates and a deviated septum because I need to be pretty. I can’t spend months inactive, because I need to work out to be skinny. One thing I’ve learned about life is it can always be worse. Right before my surgery, my doctor pulled my parents aside and gave them the news that had everyone entering the room in tears.

I HAD A BRAIN TUMOR! An innocent 15 year old who was too shy and insecure to hurt a fly! I vividly remember the feeling when they told me; that feeling of your heart dropping to the floor as your stomach tightens and throat closes. I thought it was the end. I would never live to go to college, drive a car, meet my husband or start a family. I couldn’t have been more wrong.

The way I see it, people face tragedy in two ways. You can be the victim or you can be the survivor. I am a survivor. I fought my tumor and I beat it. I had a 10-hour surgery, spent 5 nights in the ICU, went on dozens of medications and have 6 titanium plates in my skull and a 9-inch scar, but I won!

I don’t like it when others know what I went through. I don’t like being looked at differently because I fought a deadly illness. But I do love who my surgery made me. Now I am passionate about everything I do. I appreciate every moment of every day because I understand how precious life is.

I have raised over $50,000 for Making Headway through planning and executing an annual spina-thon. I started a social media campaign called  “brain freeze for brain cancer” that gained international attention and had thousands of shares. I mentor kids currently battling brain tumors, and help their families through the experience. I donate toys and clothes to the hospital. I have a blog, braintumorgirl.com, that helps kids understand what to expect when having brain surgery. Nothing makes me happier than doing these things.

My surgery gave me a new perspective on life. I don’t worry about the little, insignificant things anymore. I know how lucky I am to simply be alive and I use that to make everything I do productive.

Alexis is now studying neuroscience at Duke University. Her goal is to become a pediatric neurosurgeon or neurologist, and change the patient-doctor interface for kids undergoing brain surgery.

A Journey of Hope (Johanna’s Story)

A Journey of Hope (Johanna’s Story)


I remember well the first time we met Maya in the playroom at the Institute for Neurology and Neurosurgery at Beth Israel North. Our local pediatric neurosurgeon out on Long Island had referred my youngest daughter, Johanna, for consultation with Dr. Jeffrey Allen and the late Dr. Fred Epstein. We were newly seasoned parents; Johanna having had six brain surgeries before she turned a year old, the first one to resect a brainstem mass when she was a 12-week old infant. She needed a shunt placed before she was four months old.
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That first year, November 1996-97, was a blur as we balanced raising three older children (3, 6 and 9) and caring for our critically ill baby. But New Year 1998 rang in with a bang as we rushed Johanna to the ER with signs of pressure building, only to find out that she had multiple bleeds in her brain. After undergoing an MRI, she was diagnosed with multiple cavernous angiomas—benign lesions that multiply, hemorrhage, and grow. The only cure was surgical resection of troublesome lesions—an approach that would lead to multiple craniotomies, complications, strokes, and seizures for our little girl.

Meeting Maya Manley was a godsend for my husband and me and all our four kids. (We kind of traveled as a pack.) She introduced us to other families and took all our kids under her capable care as we met with the doctors to discuss this new diagnosis and surgical plans. Our kids—my son and his three younger sisters—all loved Maya. She made them feel welcomed and important and she was interested in their lives outside the whirl of hospital stays and surgeries. Maya helped us all feel better about this crazy new life we now lived and creatively helped us to forget about the trials by offering a cup of tea, an attentive ear, and chocolate!

Years later and after a diagnosis of a rare genetic disease—CCM3—we divided our time and Johanna’s care between NYU and a local hospital on Long Island. The kids loved our trips to NYC the best. The patients and families, nurses and some doctors came and went, but one of the constant joys in this walk has been Maya’s smiling face in the playroom and the wonderful support we’ve received from Making Headway Foundation.

Founders and friends, Maya and Edward Manley, are among the most gracious and caring people I have ever met. Through the years, our family has participated in field trips like the cruise, theater performances, parties and fundraisers, which all helped to connect us to others who were on a similar journey. The families, the Manleys, the staff, and volunteers of Making Headway all made us feel normal and welcomed, reminding us that we were not alone.

Over twenty years and a hundred surgeries later, Making Headway is still making a difference in our lives. As the gap widens between Johanna’s chronological and developmental age, there are a few things that remain the same. Maya’s fun projects and caring presence (and chocolate!) are among our sweetest consolations. And then there is always—Maya’s smile.

Standing Up (Michael’s Story)

Michael’s Story


My parents told me I swung my four-year-old feet to the side of the bed. I watched my legs dangle, while they held my IV tubes to follow me. Although I had been recuperating from emergency surgery (due to a complication during my radiation therapy), it was time to see if I could walk by myself. My parents said I had become weaker, trembling as they supported me, but I stood up.
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hope and help. Someone had once given me a little card with the poem “Footprints in the Sand.” I read it, probably like anyone reads it for the first time, and was surprised by the ending— because you do not see it coming when you read it for the first time. As a glioblastoma brain tumor survivor, I have many challenges. We all need to be carried sometimes, but on occasion, we have the ability to stand up and carry others.

Making Headway exists because it has understood this all along. When I trace my cancer journey, I see how Making Headway has been there to comfort, to educate, to encourage, and to celebrate everyone walking this particular journey. To make progress, you need to walk forward, but to make headway, you need others.

I have remained in remission since my treatment in 2005. However, I have suffered cognitive and physical deficits, including mild hemiparesis, from the trauma of this diagnosis. By surviving, my responsibility is to reveal my purpose, with gratitude. Now eighteen, I am so appreciative and excited to be attending college. I have much to accomplish, so I am using my inner strength and gratitude to ensure that I can land on my feet—because when I do stand up, my diligence delivers, my tenacity triumphs, and I rise to overcome my challenges. Grateful for how Making Headway has carried me through, I smile knowing that sometimes I can feel sand under my feet.