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Brain Cancer Won't Slow Down Baylor Student

Two years ago, a 21-year-old Baylor student from Plano learned she had a brain tumor. Taylor Roth thought she had only a year to live. But new technology at UT Southwestern showed her prognoses was actually much better. She not only returned to school, but made it all the way to TV’s Jeopardy!

About half way through freshman year, Taylor Roth started having trouble doing everyday things. Like walking to classes on campus. She ignored the symptoms for a while, but then an MRI showed a mass, about the size of a golf ball, in her brain stem. That’s the part of the brain just above the spinal cord that regulates everything from blood pressure and balance to breathing.

“At first it was just shock,” she says. “This is something that is so rare and I’m so young, I really didn’t think when this started happening that it was going to be something that serious.”

Any brain tumor is serious. But the different types have very different prognoses. The most common is the glioma – which can either be fast or slow growing. Odds of survival with a fast growing glioma are extremely low.

Making The Diagnosis:

Usually in a case like this, doctors perform a biopsy – they insert a needle and take a tiny piece of tissue to analyze. But because of the location of the growth in Taylor's brain, a biopsy was too risky.

Dr. Elizabeth Maher is associate professor of internal medicine and neurology at UT Southwestern and has been working with Taylor for two years. She decided to use a new scanning technology developed at UT Southwestern to try and  identify whether Taylor’s tumor was a fast growing – high grade – glioma, or a low grade glioma.

The scan is done in a traditional MRI machine, but instead of looking at the physical nature of the tumor, doctors analyze the chemicals. In this case, doctors would look for a very particular gene mutation associated with low grade gliomas.  This gene makes enzymes that are critical to fueling cancer cells, and the process creates a by-product – almost like a trail of breadcrumbs – that researchers can look for. These breadcrumbs are called 2-hydroxyglucarate(2HG for short).  Maher knew if she could find 2HG, Taylor’s tumor would be the slow growing type, and instead of an estimated year to live, she could have decades.  

After the very first scan, Maher says it was obvious Taylor had 2HG, and therefore a low-grade glioma. Since treatments, such as radiation and chemotherapy, work best for high grade gliomas (which are fast-growing), Maher is instead tracking Taylor’s 2HG levels to monitor the tumor for any signs of change. She says that for the past two years, Taylor's levels have been stable.

America's Favorite Quiz Show: 

Since middle school, Taylor says she's had a passion for Jeopardy! and has tried out several times. But it wasn't until last year after being flown to New Orleans for an audition and personality interview that she finally made it. 

Last month, Taylor traveled to Los Angeles to meet Alex Trebek and the other competitors for the College Championship. And here’s the thing, Taylor didn’t tell anyone at Jeopardy! about her tumor.

“I just wanted to enjoy the experience,” she says, "I would do it again in a heartbeat."

Taylor says going on Jeopardy! was a way of saying she can still liver her life, despite everything that's happened. You can watch the episode of Jeopardy! featuring Taylor on Wednesday, May 8th. 

Brain Tumor Facts:

This Saturday, May 11th is North Texas' Head for the Cure 5K Race in Plano. Proceeds from the event benefit the Brain Tumor Trials Collaborative (BTTC) through the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center and the Legacy Brain Foundation in North Texas.

Lauren Silverman was the Health, Science & Technology reporter/blogger at KERA News. She was also the primary backup host for KERA’s Think and the statewide newsmagazine  Texas Standard. In 2016, Lauren was recognized as Texas Health Journalist of the Year by the Texas Medical Association. She was part of the Peabody Award-winning team that covered Ebola for NPR in 2014. She also hosted "Surviving Ebola," a special that won Best Long Documentary honors from the Public Radio News Directors Inc. (PRNDI). And she's won a number of regional awards, including an honorable mention for Edward R. Murrow award (for her project “The Broken Hip”), as well as the Texas Veterans Commission’s Excellence in Media Awards in the radio category.