A young woman rediscovers herself amidst an earth-shattering prognosis

Gina Cortese sits in the pediatric cancer center with her nurse practitioner Kelly Laschinger and Dr. Duncan Stearns, at University Hospital in Cleveland on Feb. 27, waiting for her chemotherapy. Cortese purchased the tie that Dr. Stearns is wearing as a gift for the holidays. Photo by Jacob Byk.

Christina Suttles

Gina Cortese sat on a hospital bed surrounded by minimal equipment while she, her mother, Sheila, and her nurse occasionally burst into spontaneous laughter as they evaluated the most attractive doctors at Rainbow Babies & Children’s Hospital, a division of University Hospitals.

Despite the rainstorm that ambushed the hospital’s exterior on that bleak Wednesday afternoon, the environment in Gina’s room was quite the contrary. You could feel the warm, inviting personalities and genuine optimism press against your skin: These people love each other, which would be expected considering the amount of time both Gina and Sheila have had to spend there recently — something, they said, both shattered and reassembled their outlooks on life.

During winter break in 2011, Gina was a hard-working early childhood education major about to enter the second semester of her junior year at Kent State. After a particularly rough day at her part-time jewelry store job, she got home and immediately went to sleep. She woke up the next morning unable to feel her left toe, something she found peculiar but not worrisome. What was more alarming was the rate at which she was losing hair — something her primary care physician attributed to stress.

After several months of blood and hormone tests, all negative, she returned to school no worse for wear — or so she thought.

The numbness began to rapidly escalate. As she walked back to her seat after a class presentation, the numbness began to creep up her leg and eventually her arm. She sat in her seat silently, itching for class to end. When it did, she realized she was unable to leave her seat.

The seriousness of the situation finally hit her.

“I knew in the back of my head that something was wrong,” she said.

Her boyfriend drove her home, and she and her family went to the hospital for an MRI. This is where she received the news that she had a brain mass, and she was immediately scheduled for brain surgery.

“I asked [my neighbor], ‘what if it’s a tumor?’ And she just looked at me and said, ‘Gina, if it’s a tumor, you’re gonna get through it,’” she said.

She had her surgery in February 2012, after which she received news that would test her endurance and willpower in unimaginable ways: She had a tumor on the right side of her brain.

It was a Giant-cell glioblastoma tumor, to be precise. While this form of tumor is the most common and aggressive of its kind, it’s extremely rare. According to the National Brain Tumor Society, it accounts for two to three cases per 100,000 people in Europe and North America each year. It’s almost unheard of in someone as young as then 20-year-old Gina.

While Gina was initially in shock, Sheila was absolutely devastated at the thought of her only daughter being torn from her.

“I looked at the doctor and I said, ‘Are you kidding me? She’s 21 years old … are you kidding me?’”

After spending five days in the ICU following the surgery, Gina had to relearn activities as basic as walking, and the left side of her body was completely paralyzed. She had no memory retention and couldn’t even tell time.

This was just the tip of the iceberg in terms of treatment, and Gina was obligated to drop out of Kent State for an indefinite amount of time — something she said was one of the most frustrating parts about her prognosis.

After seven weeks of radiation and subsequent hair loss, she took a month off to rest. She then began her maintenance chemotherapy, which she continues today.

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Anyone interested in knowing more about Gina’s journey, or donating hats and scarves can contact [email protected]

One of Gina’s most tumultuous moments came after she developed a nasty allergic reaction to Temodar, the oral form of chemotherapy she takes five days a month. Her family rushed her to the hospital around 4 a.m. after she broke out into extensive, painful hives.

After seeing an allergist, she was prescribed several forms of antihistamines but was informed that there a very few documented cases of allergic reactions to Temodar. Instead of taking them in the comfort of her own home, she now has to receive the treatment over a 10-hour period in order to desensitize her.

“It’s like hives on steroids,” Shelia said. “One of the hives — [Gina] didn’t see it — was the length of her back, literally.”

Gina prepares herself to receive another form of therapy called Avastin, which is administered intravenously through a meta-port on her chest. As the port is prepped, everyone in the room is asked to pull up their masks, a precaution to prevent infection.

And then they wait.

Before any kind of chemo can be administered, doctors and nurses have to check blood levels to make sure her platelet count is at least 72,000. This could take hours on a busy day. If the tests come back positive — that day her platelet count was at 92,000 — the medicine must be specially made in the lab, which means more waiting.

During this time, the conversations can take some unexpected and cumbersome turns. As the family waited for the medicine to be concocted, Gina expressed her discontent for the way others treat the very idea of cancer and hospitals in general.

“Sometimes when people hear the word ‘cancer’ it’s like they almost whisper,” she said. “I feel like when people know people that have cancer, and they say ‘I have cancer,’ it’s like a death sentence. I just want people to know there are so many survivors.”

Both Gina and Sheila consider the hospital staff to be part of their family.

“The doctors and the nurses, everyone, they’re wonderful. I can’t say enough. … There’s such a deep love for everyone here from our hearts,” Sheila said.

This experience has completely revolutionized Gina’s perspective of hospitals and causes her endless worry that others may not completely understand the scope of her gratitude for those in the medical field.

“I don’t want people to think the hospital is death and dying,” she said. “I know people think that. People get bad visions of the hospital and, yeah, there are bad things that happen, but there are a lot of good things that happen, and just everyone who works here is awesome.”

After a year and a half of treatment, Gina is cancer-free but not quite in remission. She expects her chemotherapy to complete in May, and her scans have all come in clean. This, she said, makes her one of the lucky ones.

During her battle, she founded an organization called “Gina’s Journey” after she lost her hair as a result of the radiation therapy. A series of boxes are set up throughout both the children’s and adult’s cancer wards to collect hats and scarves for patients who need them.

Gina sports her first ponytail, albeit a small one, in more than a year and made a point to flout it to the numerous health professionals who stopped to embrace her along the way.

As they carried boxes of freshly packaged hats to refill boxes, Sheila stopped dead in her tracks and offered one to an older, hairless woman sitting in a waiting room. The look on the patient’s face as she dug through the box, searching for the perfect addition to her collection, is what both Gina and Shelia say drives them to continue such an ambitious project. It’s a small gesture that eases the financial burden on the already indebted.

When you’re in treatment, Shelia said, you can’t always afford to pay $25 to $30 on a specialized hat that’s also stylish.

Gina said that, at times, she feared death, and although she never really thought she would die, it made her appreciate her own mortality.

“If you know there’s a chance that you’re gonna die, you should at least try to leave something that people can remember you by,” she said. “I want people to remember me in a good way and remember all the things I’ve done and do for other people.”

In the future, Gina hopes to work as a child-life advocate at University Hospitals but must first transfer to the University of Akron. The silver lining, she said, is that this experience convinced her to change her major — something she never would have done otherwise.

If there’s one thing Gina would tell friends and family of cancer patients, it’s to ask questions, speak frankly and care deeply. Don’t be afraid to ask how someone is feeling, if they’re afraid and how you can help. That warmth, she said, lessens the feeling of isolation that usually accompanies such a gut-wrenching toil.

At the end of it all, Gina’s family relies heavily on their faith. The walls of their home in University Heights are plastered with uplifting psalms and religious keepsakes.

Gina, who admitted she wasn’t feeling well as a result of the numerous antihistamines her body is struggling to manage, flashed a smile as she walked onto an elevator on the second floor of the Student Center.

“If you’re going through hell, you have to go through hell with a smile,” she said.

Contact Christina Suttles at [email protected].