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Sharp Health News

Turning challenge into passion

May 1, 2017

Fabienne Hanks’ experience as a brain tumor survivor

Fabienne Hanks shares her remarkable story of challenge and opportunity. (Photo courtesy of Fabienne Hanks)

San Diego native Fabienne Hanks is a mother, grandmother and successful business owner. She and her husband of 46 years, Terry, happily live in La Mesa and her 92-year-old mother lives just next door. She is active, philanthropic and full of life. She is also a brain tumor survivor.

“I was going to fitness classes and felt like I was losing strength, rather than building it,” Hanks says. “I would lose my balance and suddenly had a fear of heights. My hands tremored, I began to walk on the balls of my feet and I just didn’t have the same energy. I knew something wasn’t right.”

Hanks sought care for her symptoms, but the specialists she saw could only tell her what she didn't have — Parkinson’s disease or ALS (also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease) — but were never able to tell her what was causing her months of neurological symptoms.

It was not until she and Terry took a celebratory trip to Europe soon after selling their event-planning company that they both recognized how greatly her symptoms had begun to affect her daily life. They decided when they got home that she would go in for an MRI in hopes of reaching a diagnosis. Within 10 minutes of starting the testing, they had what they were looking for.

Hanks was diagnosed with a meningioma, a brain tumor arising from the coverings of the brain and spinal cord. They are often benign and occur most frequently in middle-aged women.

“It was horrifying, but at least we knew what we were dealing with,” she says. “We were told the tumor was positioned just below my scalp, had not invaded my brain and was operable.”

She was quickly admitted to Sharp Memorial Hospital. Within three days, her cherry tomato-shaped tumor had been expertly removed by Dr. Lance Altenau, a neurological surgeon affiliated with Sharp Community Medical Group, and she was discharged.

“It was amazing,” Hanks says. “Brain surgery is incredibly dangerous and yet I was discharged three days after my tumor was removed and have never had to go back for rehab or any additional care other than a yearly MRI. It was a miracle and I decided that if I was spared, I was not going to take it for granted.”

One of Hanks’ first steps post-recovery was to take a previously planned cruise with her sons and their families. Hanks felt great and upon her return home decided that she wanted to share her experience — especially the exceptional care she received — with others. She wrote a letter to Tim Smith, senior vice president and CEO of Sharp Memorial.

“Terry and I were really cognizant of the superior level of care I received,” Hanks says. “I knew that such a high standard of care starts at the top and wanted to tell Tim that what he was doing was working.”

Smith responded by inviting Hanks to share her remarkable story at a fundraising breakfast and then asking her to chair the Laurel Amtower Cancer Institute and Neuro-Oncology Center Philanthropy Council. The institute was established in 2015 by the family of Laurel Amtower, an admired San Diego State University professor, author and mother who died from brain cancer in 2010 at age 44. It is the first community hospital-based program in the region dedicated to treating brain and spinal cord tumors.

Since then, Hanks has worked diligently to not only share her personal story of survival, but also to encourage others to join her in supporting the institute, which provides exceptional care and renewed hope to those facing the devastating diagnosis of brain or spinal cancer.

“I really am so passionate about this,” says Hanks. “You can’t change the diagnosis, but you can certainly change the journey, and that’s exactly what the doctors and others at the institute do. The Sharp Experience is not just a tagline — I lived it and I am forever grateful.”

To learn more about the Laurel Amtower Cancer Institute and Neuro-Oncology Center Philanthropy Council, contact Shawna Fallon, director of development, at Learn more about how to support research and treatment at Sharp through the Foundations of Sharp HealthCare.

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