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Teaming Up to Tackle a Deadly Cancer
Date:7/16/2009

Family bonds, dedicated scientists set their sights on the bone malignancy chordoma

THURSDAY, July 16 (HealthDay News) -- As a child, Daniel Alter had blazing headaches that doctors explained away as lazy eye or asthma.

He pushed himself through Boy Scout hikes until one day he fell three times in one hour. On the baseball field, he would see a fly ball coming right for his mitt and it would fall to the ground, 10 feet away.

Finally, after one horrible baseball season of missed hits and no outfield catches, doctors at a local children's hospital in Texas diagnosed chordoma, a rare and malignant bone cancer at the base of his skull. A neurosurgeon shook his head about the diagnosis.

"He told us to go home and hug him," said Daniel's mother, Lori. "There was nothing else we could do."

Daniel was 12. The year was 1997.

But the Alters, of Beaumont, Texas, wouldn't give up. They tracked down the name of one of the few surgeons in the country who was willing to take on such a risky case at the time: Dr. Osamma Al-Mefty, a neurosurgeon at the University of Arkansas Medical School.

The Alters flew to Arkansas and Daniel was prepped for brain surgery. Al-Mefty and his surgical team worked for 17 hours to cut away 70 percent of the tumor. The surgery was stopped when the doctors saw they were coming too close to the 6th and 12th cranial nerves, threatening paralysis of the boy's left eye and half of his tongue.

Al-Mefty would perform a second surgery because the tumor continued to eat away at Daniel's vertebrae. The boy would also go on to endure 42 proton beam radiation treatments.

About 300 Americans are diagnosed each year with chordoma, according to Dr. Paul Gardner, a neurosurgeon specializing in chordomas at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine and co-director of the Center for Skull-Based Surgery. The bone cancer is usually found in the top or the b
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