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Brant Gawrys: Chordoma

He has short dark blonde hair and he is wearing a blue t-shirt. He stands in front of a chain link fence.

The Challenge

Brant Gawrys had been having headaches for nearly two years before he got really concerned. He works in athletics at Cornell University, and he’s always led an active lifestyle, so he assumed a muscular imbalance in his neck was to blame. But when Brant started to experience vision problems, he decided to seek a medical opinion.

"UPMC made it as easy as it could be." — Brant

An MRI scan of Brant’s neck revealed a mass on his spine at the base of the skull, which appeared to be a meningioma, a benign tumor of the nervous system. He was referred to a neurosurgeon in Rochester, New York, close to his home in Ithaca. There, a CT scan revealed that the mass was actually a cancerous tumor called a chordoma.

Chordoma is a rare type of bone cancer. While it doesn’t typically spread to other parts of the body, it is extremely aggressive and can damage surrounding tissue and organs. Chordomas also have a high recurrence rate, meaning they often reform after treatment has stopped.

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Because of the rarity and seriousness of his condition, Brant wanted to do thorough research before choosing a doctor to treat him. He and his girlfriend, who joined him in his daunting medical journey, reached out to the Chordoma Foundation, which pointed them toward UPMC.

The Path to UPMC

Before Brant called UPMC’s Department of Neurosurgery at the Foundation’s recommendation, he spoke to neurosurgeons at two different institutions in New York about his options. Both physicians recommended seeking treatment from Paul Gardner, MD, director of the Center for Skull Base Surgery at UPMC. The triple recommendation convinced Brant to reach out.

“Dr. Gardner had been traveling, but he called me back on a Sunday night,” Brant says. “It was just amazing for him to reach out on his own time to talk to me and explain a little bit more, so we felt comfortable right off the bat with Dr. Gardner.”

The Solution

To remove Brant’s chordoma, Dr. Gardner used the Endoscopic Endonasal Approach, or EEA. UPMC surgeons pioneered EEA more than 25 years ago and have since been using this technique to remove hard-to-reach tumors at the base of the skull. Dr. Gardner removed Brant’s tumor through his nose, requiring no facial incisions. This resulted in less trauma to the brain and fewer side effects than traditional surgical techniques.

Dr. Gardner told Brant from the beginning that it would be important to remove the entire mass the first time due to chordomas’ tendency to recur, especially if any of the tumor is left behind.

“That’s probably one of the biggest factors why we chose to go to UPMC, because Dr. Gardner was very optimistic about getting a full resection and having me live a nice, long, healthy life,” Brant says.

The Results

Dr. Gardner removed the entire chordoma using EEA. Brant is back at work full time, and although he experienced double vision after his surgery, his vision has since returned to normal.

Brant says that while the experience as a whole was scary, the staff at UPMC was wonderful and “made it as easy as it could be.” He continues to follow up with Dr. Gardner and his staff and is impressed with how promptly he receives responses to his questions despite the physician’s busy schedule.

During Brant’s surgery, his family spoke to a patient who had EEA surgery the day before. The patient and her family were very happy with Dr. Gardner’s care and were excited that someone else was receiving treatment from him. And despite the many fears of that moment, Brant’s family was reassured that they had made the right decision by placing his care in the hands of Dr. Gardner and UPMC. 

Our patient stories profile a number of patients who have had minimally invasive brain surgery at UPMC. Although everyone's care experience is unique, we hope that sharing these stories will help other prospective patients and their families better understand these procedures and their potential benefits.

Brant's treatment and results may not be representative of all similar cases.

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