A few days ago, 19 year guard Lauren Hill of the Mount St.Joseph basketball team hit the first and last layup of their home opening game. It was a sentimental game, because of the outcome. The outcome for the basketball team was a charming win, but the fans did not really care about the outcome of the game. Lauren Hill suffers from a rare form of brain cancer called Diffuse Intrinsic Pontine Glioma. She was playing her first and last game as a college athlete.
Since we are just learning about cancer, I felt like this would be a good topic. Lauren was diagnosed with this cancer during the senior year of her high school career. Most tumors can be operable, but unfortunately for Lauren, her tumor was inoperable. This meant that she had to go through rounds of chemotherapy. To understand all this and how severe it can be, let us first talk about what cancer is. Put in the simplest of words, cancer is the abnormal growth of cells. The abnormal growth of cells, are caused by mutations (a change in the genetic sequence), and the accumulation of mutations causes a normal cell to become cancerous. What makes cancerous cells even more dangerous is its ability to spread around the body and create mutations. The specific type of cancerous mutation diagnosed in Lauren is called Diffuse Intrinsic Pontine Glioma (DIPG). Earlier I stated that this was a rare disease, although it is not that rare. It is not that rare if you are a child between 5-7 years old, in fact, this disease is more common in children. This makes Lauren’s case extremely unusual because she is 19 years old. This brain tumor is located in the bottom part of the brain (the pons). The pons is a very important part of the brain. The pons basically serves as the messenger, relaying messages between the cortex and the cerebellum. Without the pons being fully functional, no messages would be transmitted to the brain, leaving the brain dysfunctional. It is like having a cellphone that can receive messages but can never respond nor send messages. Lets go ahead and dissect the meaning of this diseases name (DIPG),this will give us a further understanding of the disease. Diffuse means that the tumor is not well contained : it grows out into other tissue so that cancer cells mix with many healthy cells. Pontine describes where the tumor is located, and Glioma is just a general term for tumors originating in glial cells (Glial cells are found throughout the brain. They make up the white matter of the brain that surrounds and supports the neurons (cells that carry messages in the brain). Due to the location of the tumor, symptoms include double vision, difficulty of controlling eye and eyelid and any type of muscle movement. You may also have trouble speaking and walking. The lamentable part about this disease is that it has a death rate of 90% (after 2 years of diagnosing the tumor), it is pretty remarkable how Lauren was able to still play some basketball at this stage of the cancer, most people would not be able to walk or even stand at this point in the cycle of DIPG. Hills doctors have predicted that she has months left to live in her young life. The NCAA generously moved up the home opener of St.Joseph’s basketball game just so Lauren Hill would be able to make it to the game.
Treatment for this disease is basically nonexistent. Since there is no real entry point for a surgeon to get to the pons, surgery is not an option. Chemotherapy does its duty, but you can only do so much chemo before the pill itself becomes harmful to the patient it was trying to help. There are numerous amounts of cancer, some less harmful then others, some more treatable then others,but DIPG is the unfortunate exception.