Two years ago, doctors told Taylor Roth she would likely be dead within 10 months from an inoperable brain tumor.
On Wednesday, the Baylor University junior, who has far surpassed that prognosis, will achieve a lifelong dream: Appearing on the television trivia game show “Jeopardy!”
Since high school, Roth has tried out three times to compete on the show but never made it past the in-person mock game round.
But the biggest threat to her goal was the discovery of the brain tumor her freshman year at Baylor that local doctors initially feared would take her life within months.
“It was definitely denial,” said Roth, now 21, of the initial shock from the diagnosis. “You always read about the stories of kids with cancer, and I just never thought I’d be one of them. I didn’t want to believe it, so I chose not to believe it.”
Through advanced diagnostic MRI scanning developed by researchers at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas, neuro-oncologists determined that the tumor on her brain stem was a slower-growing mass that likely wouldn’t interfere with her day-to-day life for years to come.
And in February, she was selected to compete on “Jeopardy!” in the show’s College Championship tournament.
Her appearance, which was taped in Los Angeles in early April, will air Wednesday on local NBC affiliate KCEN.
Roth cannot disclose the outcome of the show, including whether she competed in more than one round or her total earnings. Each student contestant was guaranteed a minimum award of $5,000 for competing.
But while Roth said her medical journey has given her new fire to push toward her dreams, she said she chose not to mention the tumor on the show or to its producers.
“Even though I don’t mind talking about my tumor and it’s a part of who I am, I just wanted my ‘Jeopardy!’ experience to be something separate from that,” said Roth, who managed to convince the game’s host Alex Trebek to do the school’s trademark “Sic ‘Em, Bears!” cheer with her in a photo.
During the 2011 spring semester, Roth began having trouble walking around campus. She would frequently trip, and she would have to stop to rest on her way to classes because her knees would buckle and her legs and feet felt weak. Her fingers also would go numb, and occasionally her eyes would cross.
Staff at Baylor’s student health clinic couldn’t figure out a cause for the persisting problems and referred her to a local neurologist.
The day after she underwent testing and an MRI scan, the doctor’s office told her she needed to come back in right away — and to bring her parents, Phillip and Stacy, who live in Plano.
At that meeting, she learned that the tumor, located precariously on her brain stem just above the spinal cord, could not be removed because any surgery likely would damage nerves that manage balance and coordination, breathing and vision.
She was told that she might live only another 10 months.
“I was just in shock for about an hour afterwards, because I really didn’t expect anything serious to happen,” Roth said. “It was just a lot of fear and uncertainty.”
Performing a biopsy on the tumor also could have caused permanent nerve damage, so Roth was referred to a team of researchers at UT Southwestern. There, she came under the care of neuro- oncologist Dr. Elizabeth Maher, who was spearheading new research on brain tumors.
In 2009, Maher’s team began conducting trials on a new diagnostic test they had developed to determine whether a brain mass was a slow-growing benign tumor called a glioma, or a high-grade cancerous tumor known as a glioblastoma.
Their goal was to create a noninvasive method of distinguishing between the two tumors for situations in which surgery would not be an option, such as in Roth’s case.
In collaboration with physicist Changho Choi, Maher’s research developed an MRI scanning procedure that detects the presence of an enzyme produced by a mutated gene found to affect metabolism in tumors. Higher concentrations of the enzyme indicate that the patient had the gene and would have a chance at longer survival because the glioma would grow slowly with time.
Roth’s scans confirmed that she has the mutated gene.
“What we told her was, mixed in with the bad news is some good news,” Maher said. “This is definitely a glioma . . . but your prognosis is good, which means that this tumor has been there a while and it’s going to be slow-growing.”
Maher said it’s possible that Roth’s tumor may have been growing since she was a young child. There’s no way to determine how long the tumor may remain benign before it eventually morphs into a high-grade, cancerous tumor, Maher said.
Roth returns to UT Southwestern every two months for new scans to track the tumor’s size.
Her treatment options also are limited. Chemotherapy targets cells as they multiply, but Roth’s tumor isn’t growing fast enough for the drugs to be effective. Radiation would be too harsh because of the critical location on the brain stem.
Maher is working with drug manufacturer Agio to develop a treatment that will alter the IDH gene to prohibit gliomas from growing.
For now, Roth is taking a steroid to reduce swelling in the brain around the tumor. The prescription dramatically improved her movements, causing her to ditch a cane she had to use to walk shortly after her diagnosis.
She even took up running for the first time, and completed the 5K run the past two years in Baylor’s annual Bearathon. Roth hopes to run the full half-marathon next year before she graduates.
Though her future is uncertain, Roth said she has found new vigor to continue reaching for her dreams. She will graduate from Baylor with a bachelor of science in psychology in May 2014.
She said she wants to go to graduate school to become a clinical psychologist and work with people diagnosed with cancer or chronic illnesses.
“I thought when I was first diagnosed that I was going to have to give up all my dreams and focus on this for the rest of my life,” Roth said. “But getting on ‘Jeopardy!’ showed that I’m still Taylor. I’m still good enough to compete and nothing has stopped me. And I hope it’s going to be a metaphor for the future.”