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A Life-Saving Discovery Got A 70-Year-Old Boxing Coach ‘Back in the Ring’

Gloria was used to rolling with the punches, but a rare pituitary cyst was a hit unlike anything she’s ever faced before.

A boxing coach for more than 40 years, 70-year-old South Jersey resident, Gloria Thornton-Peak, was used to being healthy and strong. She traveled and boxed internationally and took pride in leading her community’s underprivileged kids – teaching them not only athleticism but also important life skills. But in the summer of 2019, strange, unexpected symptoms knocked her down.

“I started having dizzy spells,” Gloria recalls. These bouts of what she suspected to just be vertigo progressed, leaving her weak and hardly able to move. Within two days, she found herself at urgent care, followed by the emergency room, and finally the Neuro-ICU at Jefferson Washington Township Hospital.

An Unforeseen Cause

After a series of tests, including a brain scan, Gloria received news that she had suffered a stroke, unknowingly, and that she also had what appeared to be a brain tumor.

“I was baffled. Like – are you kidding me? All of this from a little vertigo?” says Gloria. “It was incredibly hard to accept. I was confused and too tired to think clearly. I felt like I was ice cream melting in the hot sun. But then I was put on a steroid regimen to ‘perk’ me up.”

“When I first met Gloria, I knew she was very ill and that we needed to act quickly,” says endocrinologist Anthony J. Cannon, MD.

Dr. Cannon helped pinpoint Gloria’s diagnosis: a Rathke’s cleft cyst – defined as a benign (non-cancerous) growth that sits between the pituitary gland and base of the brain. The rare cyst develops during fetal development, but usually doesn’t cause complications until adulthood.

At surface value, this little cyst seems very non-threatening, says Dr. Cannon, but Gloria was actually in danger of losing her life.

The Necessity of Hormone Production

Masses of any kind can interfere with nerves, cells, and hormone production. In Gloria’s case, her cyst compressed the pituitary gland, hindering the hormone that controls the adrenal gland, adrenocorticotropin (ACTH), explains Dr. Cannon. This also prevents the body from producing enough cortisol – our main stress hormone which is essential to living.

“Think back to the ‘flight or fight’ concept. You have a bully in the neighborhood who is ready to fight you. You have two choices: duke it up or run,” says Dr. Cannon. “In that moment of decision-making, your adrenal gland fires and cortisol spikes. Cortisol is behind the increase in heart rate, perspiration, and nervousness. What would happen without that stress response?”

But even during what could’ve been the scariest time of her life, Gloria persevered. Once her symptoms subsided, thanks to the steroids, she was brought back to reality. “All I remember is that Dr. Cannon had such an amazing sense of humor – the kind where you couldn’t tell if he was serious or not,” she recalls.

Here I was, lying in a hospital bed in the worst condition of my life, and I was genuinely laughing with him. I think sometimes you need that. He put me at ease and gained my trust. —Gloria

The Advantages of Minimally Invasive Neurosurgery

After a full workup, Gloria was sent to neurosurgeon James Evans, MD for surgery. Removal of her cyst was recommended as soon as possible to provide decompression of the pituitary gland and prevent any further endocrine damage.

Thanks to advanced techniques, which have evolved tremendously over the past two decades, mentions Dr. Evans, most pituitary masses are removed through a minimally invasive, endoscopic surgery (also known as transsphenoidal endoscopic surgery).

“The endoscope – like a tiny microscope – gives us clear vision and direct access to what would otherwise be a tricky location to reach at the base of the brain,” explains Dr. Evans. “We only need to make a small opening in one of the sinuses to access the pituitary gland. Not only can we achieve a better removal of the tumor, but it also allows for faster recovery and most often discharge the day after surgery – which is why Gloria was able to bounce back so quickly.”

Gloria recalls her recovery being a lot more seamless than expected, as she was back to work within a couple of weeks. A couple of weeks after that, she was back to coaching too.

While her cyst was fully removed, her pituitary gland was, unfortunately, permanently affected prior to surgery. Sometimes, the function of the pituitary gland can gradually return, adds Dr. Evans.  There is also a potential for cyst regrowth, though it is very low. This is why continued surveillance and follow-up is so important.

With her pituitary gland not functioning at full capacity, Gloria also continues to struggle from the effects of secondary adrenal insufficiency and hypopituitarism (the condition that refers to the failed production of these necessary hormones). For the past two and a half years, she has stuck to a steroid regimen to supplement the hormones her body isn’t generating. So far, she says she’s dealt with weight gain, but thankfully nothing more.

Getting “Back in the Ring”

According to her care team, Gloria has shown no signs of recurrence and has recovered well. But if you don’t want to take his word for it, just ask Gloria, who recently trekked through the Middle East with her loving wife, Robbie. For weeks, they rode camels, dune buggies, and hiked through the sandy hills of Dubai.

Collage of Gloria's pictures from Dubai, one with her wife and the other when riding a camel

Gloria riding a camel (left) and with her wife Robbie in Dubai (right).

“People look at me like I’m crazy,” says Gloria. “But I feel great! I might not move as fast as I used to, but I’ll keep going. If anything, this experience has made me appreciate my life that much more. I want to keep enjoying it and doing as much as I can, for as long as I can.”

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