Brain cancer survivor 'always optimistic'

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HOUMA, La. (AP) — Constance Blanchard has bright eyes and a loud, infectious laugh.

Even when asked to recall her six-year journey with brain cancer, the 32-year-old woman from Gray never fails to smile. She said she didn't think of it as a death sentence when she first received her diagnosis in April 2009.

"It was a shock. Everyone around me was kind of down," said Blanchard, who was 26 when she suffered her first severe seizure.

Medical testing revealed a combination grade 3 and grade 4 malignant tumor on the left frontal lobe of Blanchard's brain, Thibodaux Regional Medical Center doctors said. It was the most aggressive form of brain cancer, and there was also a high chance of recurrence.

"But I was always optimistic about my health. The majority of people didn't even know I was sick. They couldn't tell," Blanchard said.

Louisiana marked May 9 as its first designated "Gray Day" as part of Brain Cancer Awareness Month. Blanchard said she feels lucky.

Before medical treatment, her tumor's location did not seem to impair her speech, personality, thinking or movement.

It's a combination of positive thinking and sheer luck that has helped her survive two successive brain surgeries and extended rounds of chemotherapy and radiation, Blanchard said. While she goes for regular eight-month checkups, she has been in remission for the last five years.

The road to recovery was not always so easy, Blanchard said. Although her first surgery in May 2009 seemed successful, the seizures returned with a vengeance about eight months later.

"We weren't going to play around anymore. The best thing was to go to MD Anderson," she said, adding that her local doctor didn't hesitate to refer her to the comprehensive cancer treatment center in Houston, Texas.

Based on the surgeon's availability, Blanchard chose to undergo the nearly 10-hour surgery only a day after she arrived in Houston because "waiting only gave her more time to worry."

"They take MRIs while they're performing the surgery, so they're able to get as much as possible and remove the majority of the brain tumor," she said.

Her second surgery resulted in almost a complete removal of her tumor, Blanchard added. She celebrated with her family and friends at a Super Bowl party the following day when the New Orleans Saints won the championship.

According to a 2014 Central Brain Tumor Registry of the United States report, about 40,000 people across the country are diagnosed with a primary brain tumor annually.

Primary tumors, which originate from brain cells, are considered the fifth-leading cause of cancer death in women between ages 20 and 39.

Survival rates depend on the tumor's aggressiveness, location and the individual's age, according to a report released by the BrainTumor Center at Columbia University. The causes are still undetermined.

The effort to raise awareness about brain cancer resulted in the creation of Gray Day in Louisiana.

Gray Day was recognized by the Legislature in 2013 with the help of U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu and Mona Leingang, a New Orleans woman who lost her husband to cancer, said Adam Klipper, co-executive director of the national organization Voices Against Brain Cancer.

"Brain cancer is often viewed as the orphan cancer," he said. "Once the legislation passed, it gave us the kick that we needed to bring it to a national forefront."

"Your brain is basically you — your thoughts and feelings. It's who you are and it's scary to think about losing that," Klipper said, advising newly diagnosed patients to seek a second opinion and be wary of misinformation. "But it's something people don't need to be scared of."

"I'm a big believer in positive thinking — if you give up internally and believe you're done, the cancer will take over," he said.

Brain cancer patients, survivors and caregivers can wear a gray-colored item in support of Gray Day. They are also encouraged to change their Facebook profile picture to show a gray ribbon.

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Information from: The Courier,

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