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Ten years after
Woman survives decade with brain tumor
Ronna Haley
Ronna Monahan and Haley Leffler

Ten years ago, The Platteville Journal did a story about a benefit event for a nine-year-old Platteville girl who was getting treatment for a brain tumor.

Ten years later, Haley Leffler of Platteville is a student in Southwest Wisconsin Technical College’s medical assistant program.

Ten years later, Leffler’s brain tumor is still on her brain and spinal cord. Leffler has progressed to where she needs MRI scans only every nine months, instead of the three, then six, months after her brain surgery, chemotherapy and radiation.

“They really didn’t expect her to graduate and get out of high school,” said Ronna Monahan, Leffler’s mother. “It’s a miracle she’s doing as well as she is.”

Leffler’s story began in early 2003.

“I remember complaining of really bad headaches and my shoulder hurting,” she said. “The weekend before, we were in the Dells, and I didn’t want to do anything.”

Leffler went to three chiropractor appointments because of shoulder pain.

On Feb. 6, 2003, a staffer at Neal Wilkins Elementary School called saying Leffler was “screaming and in lots of pain, and you need to come and get her,” said Monahan.

Leffler went to a doctor for an MRI exam. Her next stop was the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics in Iowa City for an emergency operation to install a shunt in her brain to relieve intracranial pressure.

“They knew there was something in her brain; they just didn’t know what it was,” said Monahan.

Leffler’s next nine-hour surgery revealed the presence of a pilocytic astrocytoma, a benign tumor in her brain and on her spinal cord. Doctors got enough of the softball-size tumor for a sample, but removing it was too risky because of its location.

“It’s one of the most common and slowest-growing in children, so they figure she was born with it,” said Monahan. “It just took nine years to find the symptoms.”

The symptoms included clumsiness. “Hers is really close to her eye, so we had to watch for her going blind or not being able to see,” said Monahan. “Or fine motor skills.”

The surgery included removing part of the back of her skull in case the tumor grew.

Leffler spent 11 days in Iowa City, and came home with a walker. She then went to the hospital daily for six weeks — “it’s exactly two hours on the nose,” said Monahan — for chemotherapy and radiation.

Complicating matters further was that Monahan had just married, and had three stepdaughters to go with Leffler’s brother.

“It was hard on my husband and me,” said Monahan. “We were pretty newly married, and it was hard on everybody.”

The benefit was held during Leffler’s postsurgical treatments. About 600 people attended the benefit.

The 10-year survival rate for pilocytic astrocynomas is 90 percent if the brain tumor is completely removed, according to medical literature. If the tumor is not removed, the 10-year survival rate is 45 percent.

“They have told us that if anything happened down the road, it would probably be nine or 10 years down the road, because it took nine years to show up,” said Monahan.

Initially she had MRIs every three months, extending to every six, then every nine months. “She’ll have to have that for the rest of her life just to make sure there’s no growth in it,” said Monahan. “They do not want to do any more surgeries unless it’s lifesaving. One miscue and she could be paralyzed.”

Leffler can drive, though her driver’s license requires her to have mirrors mounted on both front doors. She takes medication for her pituitary gland, which was affected by the radiation treatments. One side of her neck is stiff. The skull removal that was part of her brain surgery exempted her from phy ed classes, and she can’t go on roller coasters or anything that might cause whiplash.

“I don’t live a different life than anybody else, really,” said Leffler.

Her experience as a patient led her into an interest in health care as a profession. Leffler wants to work for a small clinic after she graduates in May, and go back to school later to get a nursing degree.

“It surprised me that she went into the medical field, because she’s been poked and prodded all these years,” said Monahan.

“I always said that I had health care people give to me,” said Leffler, “so I wanted to give back to other people.”