Spend at least 20 minutes with this USC Upstate nursing student and your whole outlook on life may change.
At 22 years old, she’s already faced a life-changing battle and she’s shared her story in the most recent issue of “People” magazine.
Stephanie Lipscomb was just 20 years old when her world changed.
“I never thought that I was going to die,” Lipscomb said. “I knew that God had a bigger plan for me.”
Lipscomb was finishing her freshman year when she began having terrible headaches. She said doctors thought they were migraines and gave her caffeine pills to help. A later diagnosis was a sinus infection and she began taking antibiotics. There was still no relief.
“I was taking a summer class, working at Outback and not really getting a lot of rest,” Lipscomb said. “I was taking the medications, but I kept feeling weaker and then suddenly, I couldn’t take care of myself.”
Lipscomb said her sister, Lauren, drove from Seneca to pick her up from school. She said her grandparents came to stay with her, as her parents were out of town, and it became apparent that Lipscomb’s health was continuing to decline. They rushed her to the emergency room.
“They thought maybe I had meningitis,” she said. “After a spinal tap and a CT scan, I knew something was wrong. Five minutes later, the doctor told me I had a mass on my brain, the left frontal lobe, that was shifting.”
Lipscomb said the news brought her to her knees. The tumor, a stage 4 glioblastoma, the most aggressive type of brain cancer, was the size of a tennis ball and was located just behind her right eye.
“It took a minute for me to wrap my head around it, I guess I was in shock or maybe, denial,” Lipscomb said.
A short time later, Lipscomb said she was rushed to Greenville Memorial Hospital for surgery. She took a semester off from school while undergoing chemotherapy and radiation.
Lipscomb said her battle would be a tough one, but one that taught her more about life and love than she could have ever imagined. Lipscomb said most people with this type of cancer live around 18 months after diagnosis, and even after the surgery and the removal of most of her tumor, doctors had predicted she may only have about five years to live. Lipscomb said she was determined to beat those odds.
“I learned not to take life for granted,” Lipscomb said. “I also learned what it takes to be a good friend. Cancer changed my outlook on life and it forced me to grow up.”
The oldest of five children, Lipscomb said even through treatment, cancer helped her to more clearly define her next steps in life. Returning to the Mary Black School of Nursing for the spring semester of 2011, Lipscomb said she didn’t want to be treated differently. For a long time, she kept her illness quiet. She wore wigs to hide the fact that she had lost her hair and she worked hard to keep her grades up and to keep herself healthy.
Lipscomb said she clued in faculty members when she had no other choice. That time came two years after her initial surgery in April 2012 when Lipscomb learned the tumor had returned.
“You can’t miss a day in nursing school,” Lipscomb said. “It became very obvious that they would have to understand my situation.”
Lipscomb said the faculty were very understanding and very supportive.
“Ms. (Mary) Myers has been so good to me,” Lipscomb said. “Not only has she been my adviser,but she’s been my counselor and second mom.”
Lipscomb said the second battle would be how to treat this round of cancer. She said her neuro-oncologist at the Preston Robert Tisch Brain Tumor Center at Duke University Medical Center gave her the option of enrolling in a clinical trial.
Without hesitation, Lipscomb said “yes,” to being the first human to have the treatment. She said it was a decision that frightened her mother, Kelli Lusk.
“They told us that they would use the polio virus to treat the tumor,” Lipscomb said. “Essentially, they would inject the virus into the tumor and then my immune system would react to help attack the tumor and essentially kill it.”
Lipscomb said she broke it down to the basics for her mom and with her support, she entered into the clinical trial.
The first phase of the testing for the polio virus-based therapy was through a catheter inserted into her brain in May 2012.
It’s been almost five months since her last checkup at Duke University Medical Center and so far there’s been no sign of the tumor’s regrowth.
Lipscomb will return to the medical center this summer, but not as a patient. She’s been awarded a nursing externship.
After graduation in December 2014, Lipscomb hopes to be a pediatric oncology nurse.
“I love working with children and always wanted to be a pediatric nurse,” Lipscomb said. “After cancer, I still want to be a pediatric nurse, but I want to work with oncology patients. My hope is that I will be a sympathetic voice for a child facing cancer. I can relate to their fears and perhaps offer some advice for parents whose children are undergoing treatment.”
Story by Carolyn Farr Shanesy. Photo by Les Duggins