Patient Stories

Mary McQueen

In November 2022, Mary McQueen started feeling like some of the toes on her right foot were asleep. The tingling sensation moved to her left toes, then her entire right foot.

McQueen, 70, thought she might be experiencing peripheral neuropathy based on concerns with her weight and prediabetes. An X-ray showed no results that would explain the tingling, and the sensation was now advancing toward her right knee.

Eventually, a doctor close to her home in Charlotte confirmed her suspicions and diagnosed her with peripheral neuropathy.

McQueen underwent the recommended nerve testing and physical therapy but saw no relief. In talking with a friend who is a retired physician, she was encouraged to reach out to Duke. “Peripheral neuropathy doesn’t come on this fast,” she recalled her friend telling her.

Coming to Duke

At Duke University Hospital, McQueen first met with neurologist Natalia L. Gonzalez, MD, who ordered an MRI to find the cause of the tingling that had taken McQueen from playing tennis to needing a cane to walk in a matter of months.

The MRI showed a tumor on McQueen’s spine. She started looking at the Duke Neurosurgery website to see surgeons.

“Dr. Goodwin’s picture there just struck me,” McQueen said, referring to Rory Goodwin, MD, PhD. “He was such a nice-looking man and had such a high rating. I just thought if I was going to have a doctor, I sure wish I’d have that doctor.”

McQueen got her silent wish.

“I said nothing to anybody about who I wanted. I figured I’d get who I get and they’re all going to be good,” she said. “I had listened to his video that was on the website. His voice was so calming and his whole philosophy about treating patients was just wonderful. When I did end up with Dr. Goodwin, I felt like I had the best doctor I could have.”

A second round of imaging found a blood clot in her lung that had started in her right leg. The clot needed to be treated prior to spinal surgery in order to get McQueen through surgery safely.

Goodwin told McQueen that a tumor called a benign schwannoma on her spine had led to severe spinal cord compression that caused her symptoms.

While the physical therapy and nerve testing had been treating McQueen’s symptoms, Goodwin said the surgery went to the root cause of the problem.

“Dr. Gonzalez’s quick thinking is what sent her to me,” Goodwin said. “She said ‘something doesn’t make sense.’ She’s the one who ordered the necessary tests and said, ‘you need spine doctors.’”

Back on track

“I feel like I did before anything ever happened,” McQueen said. “I can’t say enough good about Duke and everybody I came in contact with.

“I thought it was a godsend,” she said, referring to her physicians, including one who was at her bedside after she’d had a fainting spell. “He was holding my hand and said, ‘You’re fine. You’re where you need to be.’”

Since her surgery, McQueen has been getting back to her old hobbies. While she doesn’t see herself playing tennis with her husband, Paul, any time soon, she’s back to her new love of quilting that she picked up early in the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I’m very happy with where I am now,” McQueen said. “I’m where I need to be. I know everything’s going to be alright.”

The Eddys

The spine is a common site for cancer to metastasize (spread). In fact, research shows that between 30 and 70 percent of people with metastatic cancer will experience a tumor on their spine.

Unfortunately, it is also common for people to be unaware that they have any cancer at all until it has spread from the primary site – perhaps the lung or breast — to the spine.

This was the case for Chad Eddy of Wake County, NC, who was feeling fine until a nagging back pain started. His X-rays looked normal, so he tried physical therapy. The pain only got worse, until he was at times unable to walk. Finally, an MRI showed masses on his spine and a broken vertebra.

Follow-up appointments were scheduled, which would not be kept. Chad explains: “I woke up one morning and a voice in my head screamed, “GET YOURSELF TO A HOSPITAL NOW.” He and his wife, Missy, called for an ambulance, and asked the paramedics to take him to Duke. “Suddenly, I felt like I was going to be taken care of,” he says. “I had never been to Duke, but I knew that it had a national reputation.”

At the emergency department at Duke University Hospital, Missy gave Chad’s MRI scans to Michael O’Keefe, MD, an emergency medicine physician. Chad remembers O’Keefe telling him, “We have a neurosurgeon upstairs, we’re connected to the top people, and we’re going to work fast on this.” Chad and Missy felt relief. “That was the first time anyone said we’re going to move fast,” says Chad. As they mentally prepared to face surgery the next day, they were shocked once again to learn it would happen in just three hours.

Duke neurosurgeon Rory Goodwin, MD, PhD, was on call when Chad and Missy arrived at the ED. Goodwin is co-leader of the new Duke Center for Brain and Spine Metastasis and specializes in treating tumors of the spine.

Chad said Goodwin immediately put him at ease. “He walked in and told me not to worry, that they were going to do what they needed to,” says Chad. “His confidence was so comforting.” Missy felt the same. “If there’s one person you want on your team, it’s him,” she says.

In a six-hour surgery, Goodwin removed the tumor and performed a spinal fusion by placing a cage between two vertebrae. It was after the surgery that Chad and Missy got the diagnosis: He had stage 4 non-small cell lung cancer, caused by an EGFR mutation, that had spread to his spine.

A few days after surgery, Chad was up and walking, determined to start down the road to recovery. The surgery was followed by targeted therapy (osimertinib) and radiation treatments. Meanwhile, Chad, a former athlete, went from walking to running for short intervals. He and Missy never stopped living their lives. “Six weeks after the surgery, I packed him up and took him to the beach,” says Missy.

His last scan, six months after surgery, showed one small spot left on his lung.

“God blessed our family and worked some miracles through the skilled professionals at Duke,” says Chad. “We’ve learned to appreciate life at a new level, and we’ve learned that we have to be vulnerable and allow people to help. When we got to Duke, I was able to let go.”

Katie Mackin

In November 2017, Katie Mackin was a 34-year-old mother of a six-month-old baby when she felt something in her back pop. Mackin is a physician assistant in an orthopedic practice, and her first thought was that she had a slipped disc. The pain kept getting worse, even after two months of physical therapy and anti-inflammatories. In January 2018, an MRI revealed tumors on her spine, which turned out to be metastases of breast cancer that Mackin didn’t know she had. By February, she was having spine surgery at the Duke’s Center for Brain and Spine Metastasis.

Fast forward to March 2020. Mackin missed only about five months of work, and is able to keep up with her two-and-a-half year old son. “I’m able to do most of the things I want to do,” she says. And she attributes that to the care she’s gotten from providers at the Duke Cancer Center, including spine surgeon Rory Goodwin, MD, PhD.

“He has been fantastic,” she says. “I can’t say enough good about him. He makes you feel like you’re a person, not just another patient-number.”

When Mackin first met with Goodwin, he explained that surgery to remove cancer and stabilize her spine carried a risk of paralysis, but doing nothing carried a higher risk of paralysis. “It was a no-brainer,” she says. “I felt super confident with him. He had every scenario covered.” The surgery went well, and Mackin started back at work, part-time at first, just five months later.

Mackin had radiation before surgery for pain relief in her hip and lower back, with the goal of making post-surgical rehab easier. She also started on Trastuzumab (Herceptin) and Pertuzumab (Perjeta), which she continues to this day, at three-week intervals. After the surgery, and more radiation to kill any remaining cancer cells, she also underwent several rounds of chemotherapy.

Since then, she’s done well. “When you’re stage 4, you never get told you’re in remission,” she says. “But I’ve been stable since August 2018, and I hope to be stable for a lot longer.”