Kippen's Story: Brain Tumor

An ordinary evening under extraordinary circumstances

The scene was a typical snapshot of Kippen Westphal’s life. An account executive for a manufacturer of environmentally friendly flooring, Kippen was out to dinner with longtime clients. Over Caesar salad and halibut, they discussed their current project, global warming, local sports teams — and the tumor eliminated from Kippen’s brain the previous day. 

A different time — a different story

Nine years ago, Kippen was busy running her own business and snatching the rare spare moment to spend with her husband. All seemed well enough, but she was unusually tired, suffered more than her share of headaches and was in a constant battle with a stubborn case of nasal congestion. Kippen dismissed her symptoms — surely they were due to mounting pressures at work — but when her balance began to go sideways, she decided a visit to her family doctor was in order. 

Kippen’s physician made the prudent and fortunate decision to investigate the cause of her symptoms and ordered a CAT scan. The doctor was every bit as surprised as her patient at what the image revealed: a lemon-sized tumor on Kippen’s brain stem. 

Good news — sort of

The growth in Kippen’s brain was a benign tumor called a meningioma. The good news was that it was not brain cancer, so there was no risk of the tumor spreading outside its place of origination. 

The bad news, of course, was that a good-sized tumor was growing inside Kippen’s head. Although it was not cancerous, it carried considerable — even life-threatening — risks. Because the brain occupies a very finite space contained within the skull, there is no room for anything that doesn’t belong. Even a benign tumor displaces the brain and can cause headaches, swelling and seizures. The best “cure” for Kippen’s brain tumor was simply to remove it. 

Sometimes it is brain surgery

Removing a brain tumor — especially with conventional surgical methods — is no small task. Kippen underwent an 11-hour operation, where a portion of her skull was removed to provide access to her brain. Nearly a year passed before she felt well enough to return to work. 

While Kippen’s surgery was deemed a success, her post-tumor life included regular check-ups with her doctor to make certain the tumor didn’t recur. Unfortunately, during a routine MRI two years ago — seven years after her original surgery — she learned that her tumor had indeed returned. Because the unwanted growth was still very small, her first surgeon recommended that they let it grow larger before going in to remove it. The thought of another 11-hour operation and a year’s recuperation did not appeal to Kippen. 

Wise words from a dear friend

While on a daily walk with a good friend, Kippen shared her news. Kippen’s friend was more knowledgeable than most about new medical technology and urged her to seek other options. She recommended Dr. Sandra Vermeulen at Swedish, and Kippen promptly made an appointment. 

Kippen may have been surprised to learn that Dr. Vermeulen is a radiation oncologist with the Swedish Cancer Institute. Her tumor was not cancerous, so why would she meet with a “cancer doctor?” 

In addition to her role as radiation oncologist, Dr. Vermeulen is the co-director of Swedish’s CyberKnife Center. While radiation therapy has long been a common tool used to fight tumors — both malignant and benign — the CyberKnife takes old technology and applies it in a fascinating new way. 

Getting to the heart — or the brain — of the matter

“The CyberKnife is an extremely focused radiation technology,” explains Dr. Vermeulen. “It can zero in on a treatment area with sub-millimeter accuracy. When you consider that a single inch translates to 25 millimeters, you can see that its applications are remarkably precise. This allows us to provide more powerful treatments to the tumor while protecting the healthy tissue surrounding it.” 

With the help of exceptionally high-definition CT or MRI scans that pinpoint the treatment area, the CyberKnife uses a navigation tool — a GPS system of sorts — to direct hundreds of very low-power beams of radiation to a single tiny spot. “Because each beam is just a fraction of the whole dose,” explains Dr. Vermeulen, “it can pass through healthy bone and tissue without doing harm. But as all the beams converge on the tumor, they create a force powerful enough to destroy or damage it so it will stop growing.” 

More like a trip to the spa

Because of the size and location of her tumor, Kippen was delighted to learn that she was a good candidate for CyberKnife surgery. She scheduled her appointment and all went just as Dr. Vermeulen described. Her tumor was small, so a single 45-minute treatment was all that was needed to extinguish the unwanted growth. During her treatment, Kippen wore a comfortable mask to keep her head still. She needed no anesthesia and kept all of her hair. She wore her own clothes and spent the 45 minutes at what she dubs the “tumor spa” listening to wonderful music. Kippen felt no side effects, and the next evening, she took her clients out to dinner. 

“It’s pretty amazing when you think that on Monday, you can go in and have a treatment — I guess you can call it brain surgery — and take clients to dinner on Tuesday,” exclaims Kippen. 

Location, location, location

A Seattle native, Kippen Westphal has always been grateful to live in the Pacific Northwest. She now has one more reason to give thanks for living in Seattle: access to the finest health care available. The CyberKnife at the Swedish Cancer Institute is the only one in the Seattle area and Dr. Vermeulen is all she could ask for in a physician. “When my husband and I first met Dr. Vermeulen, we were both surprised and delighted at this doctor we saw before us. She was instantly warm and caring. Yes, she wanted to take technology into the future, but with definite and genuine compassion for her patient.” 

For Kippen, her experience at Swedish was the best of both worlds. If you ask if she would choose Swedish again, her response is quick and to the point: “It’s a no brainer.”