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Personal trainer battles brain tumor and seizures

June 05, 2015
Dominic Valentine, a Riverside County physical trainer and mother, is recovering from successful surgery at UC Irvine Medical Center for a brain tumor and related seizures.
Dominic Valentine says faith and family are helping her heal and stay positive.

Every morning at 4:15, Dominic Valentine, began preparing for the boot camp classes she ran out of her garage. Afterward, the personal trainer would follow up with a walk of several miles.

It was during one of those walks near her Eastvale home last January that Valentine, 48, suffered a seizure. She and her husband spent the weekend seeking answers at nearby Corona Regional Medical Center, whose doctors ultimately referred her to Dr. Jack Lin, medical director of the UCI Health Comprehensive Epilepsy Program.

Lin surmised that Valentine’s seizures were likely coming from her frontal lobe, the region of the brain that controls movement, among other vital functions. An MRI revealed the presence of an anaplastic oligodendroglioma, a type of malignant brain tumor that is often discovered because of the onset of seizure activity.

Lin told Valentine she had a brain tumor, but reassured her "that I was committed to help her obtain the best outcome possible — removal of the tumor and the seizure onset zone.”

Unique surgical approach

Lin consulted with his UCI Health colleagues, neurosurgeon Dr. Sumeet Vadera and neuro-oncologist Dr. Jose Carrillo with the Comprehensive Brain Tumor Program. The team agreed that along with removing the tumor, they also would try to ensure that Valentine could live seizure-free.

"Few centers have the expertise and the willingness to take the extra step to treat seizures and brain tumors all at once,” said Vadera, who specializes in surgical treatments for epilepsy, brain and spinal tumors.

First, the neurosurgeon outfitted Valentine with a subdural grid, a plastic device with electrodes, to pinpoint the exact location of the seizure activity in relationship to the tumor. "Tumors by themselves don’t cause seizures,” Vadera explained. “They irritate the surrounding brain and cause nearby regions to start creating seizures.”

Armed with that detail, he successfully removed the tumor and the area triggering the seizures from the frontal lobe, specifically in a region that controls motor functions, as Lin had initially suspected.

When Valentine woke up, she had no mobility on her right side. Although her medical team had told her that she would likely have some temporary weakness after the surgery, to mentally prepare her, the reality was hard to deal with.

“I felt like an invalid,” she recalled. “But I was not going to let this get my spirits down. I was not going to feel sorry for myself.”

Impressive recovery

Valentine's medical team assured her that this setback would be temporary, that working with the nursing and rehabilitation staff would help to improve her mobility and regain her strength. She relished the challenge and hung a sign in her hospital room as a reminder:  “When all is said and done, what is done is more important than what is said.”

As her movements improved after days in the hospital, Valentine began looking forward to going home and decided that she wouldn’t rely on a cane or walker.  

Within weeks, her ability to move increased dramatically. In less than a month, she was able to climb stairs without help. The medical staff told her they were amazed by her progress.

“I’m amazed at myself,” she told them.

Finding strength

Valentine's recovery from surgery, while impressive, was just the first part of her battle. This somewhat rare type of tumor, which represents about 4 percent of all primary brain tumors, requires both radiation and chemotherapy.

She already has begun radiation therapy at the UCI Health Chao Family Comprehensive Cancer Center, where she is receiving treatment with a linear accelerator, which can deliver a powerful dose of radiation targeted to within a millimeter of the tumor site.

Dominic Valentine, center, with husband Fred, left; son Daniel, 17, at top, and son Chris, 22, at right.Next she’ll undergo a chemotherapy regimen at the cancer center. Carrillo, the neuro-oncologist, says that with aggressive treatment, her prognosis is quite good.

“I am impressed that Dominic continues to be a strong and positive person, even when confronting something as earthshaking as a new cancer diagnosis,” he said. “She continues to smile, and plan her recovery. We are committed to achieving the best results for her.”

Valentine credits her faith and her supportive family — husband Fred and their sons, Daniel, 17, and Chris, 22 — for keeping her going.

“I have a positive attitude, and I’m not going to let this get me down,” she said.

— Lindsay Carrillo, UCI Health Marketing & Communications