When newly married couple Lydia and Anikait Sharma moved to the United States in 2016, they were excited about their lives in a brand new country. The London, United Kingdom natives had recently moved across the ocean to Philadelphia for Anikait’s new job as a Director of Financial Planning and Analysis. Lydia took her time to seek out new roles and found full-time employment as an Executive Assistant in Center City for a media and technology company. The two were finally feeling settled in their new surroundings when Lydia was suddenly struck with intense, debilitating headaches.
Although Lydia, 32, had been getting headaches since she was a teenager, she had never experienced pain quite like this. At first, she chalked it up to the stress of moving to a new country and adjusting to her job. Yet, she could sense something more serious at play. “I never really felt quite right,” she remarked.
By August 2017, Lydia’s headaches had increasingly grown worse — sometimes she would get as many as ten a day, and occasionally she would even black out. After visiting urgent care several times, she was told that the headaches could have been the result of sinus issues, allergies, or possibly even vertigo from working in a tall building. The nasal spray she had been prescribed wasn’t helping either. In the meantime, the couple were scheduled to go on vacation to Cancun, Mexico during the last week of August, and Lydia’s doctor at the time reassured her that she would be well enough to make the trip and that it could be a good opportunity to relax after a busy ten months.
Unfortunately, her headaches persisted, progressively getting worse during their vacation. The day before they were due to return to the U.S., Lydia began vomiting and was starting to become confused. Anikait had the hotel arrange for an on-call doctor to assess her. The doctor gave her a shot that was supposed to help alleviate her severe headache, but it didn’t help, so the doctor had Lydia rushed to the ER for a scan of her brain. In the midst of all the chaos, Hurricane Harvey was expected to hit Mexico at any time and travel along the Gulf towards the U.S., so Lydia’s situation became even more urgent.
At the hospital in Mexico, a scan revealed a very large cyst on Lydia’s brain, which doctors determined was the cause of her headaches and other related symptoms due to a buildup of intense intracranial pressure. However, the scan also revealed something that no one was expecting to see — a tumor. “That was a massive shock and felt completely surreal,” Anikait recalled.
Before anyone could even think about the tumor, the cyst needed to be drained via craniotomy to relieve the pressure on Lydia’s brain. Fortunately, the hospital in Cancun had a neurosurgery department and was set up to handle this specialized surgery. The medical team also performed a biopsy on the tumor for further analysis once the couple returned to the United States.
Anikait had learned about Jefferson neurosurgeon Christopher Farrell, MD, from some family who are also doctors living in the United States. Farrell responded immediately after Anikait contacted him from Mexico, and Anikait began working with the group at Jefferson to conduct a hospital-to-hospital transfer for Lydia once she was cleared to leave the ICU in Cancun. Once she was cleared, she was taken out of Mexico via a low-altitude medical evacuation and brought directly to Thomas Jefferson University Hospital in Center City for further evaluation.
It was at Jefferson where Lydia was officially diagnosed with an anaplastic astrocytoma, an often slow-growing but aggressive brain cancer. Farrell arranged for surgery to remove as much of the tumor as possible, which was located in the front right lobe of her brain. During this time, Lydia and Anikait’s family in the U.K. started making their way to the U.S. after learning of Lydia’s situation. “I had no idea how serious things were at this point. Nothing had really hit me yet,” Lydia said.
Luckily, her surgery went smoothly. Afterward, Farrell, along with the Tumor Board at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital, determined that radiation and chemotherapy would be the next steps in Lydia’s treatment. Not everything went according to plan during her recovery from surgery, however.
Lydia faced a setback when the site of her surgery became infected. This required another operation to clean the area and ensure the brain was safe from infection. The couple were faced with the fear and anxiety of surgery and recovery all over again. Afterward, Lydia was required to start a lengthy course of an intravenous antibiotic to clear the infection and prevent it from returning. Lydia was able to return home after a week in the hospital following this unexpected third surgery. It was an intense period for the couple, as the antibiotic required daily infusion via PICC line for six weeks, which Anikait would give to Lydia at home.
The couple faced yet another hurdle during this time: they were told that chemotherapy and radiation could make it more difficult for them to naturally conceive children in the future. Lydia and Anikait hadn’t yet reached the point in their lives where they were ready to make a decision about starting a family. Yet, they now had a very short window to determine if they wanted to take any measures to preserve their fertility before Lydia began the next phase of her treatment. They ultimately decided that Lydia would undergo oocyte cryopreservation — a procedure that required a ten-day course of hormones and invasive egg retrieval.
After the fertility treatments were complete, Lydia and Anikait met with radiation oncologist Wenyin Shi, MD, and neuro-oncologist Nina Martinez, MD, to discuss Lydia’s upcoming treatment: a combination of radiation therapy and oral chemotherapy. For the first time, the word “cancer” was actually used to define Lydia’s condition — an especially difficult moment for the couple. However, Lydia’s fears were lessened once she started treatment. “The radiation oncology team was really good to me. They knew that I was nervous and would talk to me through the speaker in the other room while I was receiving treatment.” They were also a source of comfort for her when she was feeling particularly emotional about her journey, providing her with words of encouragement and hugs.
When Lydia started losing her hair several weeks into the treatment, she would look in the mirror and think, “Who is this person, and how did I get here?” However, she managed to remain pragmatic and optimistic through her ordeal. “This was an awful time for us — although somehow, I managed to plow through.” She completed her radiation treatment just before the holidays in December 2017, so she was able to enjoy some much-needed relaxation time with family and friends. She is still under the care of Martinez for her oral chemotherapy treatment: a drug called temozolomide. Every two months, Lydia undergoes a routine MRI of her brain to see how the chemotherapy is working. She also has routine bloodwork to help monitor chemotherapy-related adverse effects.
Recently, Lydia felt well enough to return to work and did so in the spring of 2018. Lydia and Anikait both credit Jefferson for helping Lydia get back to a normal routine. They said, “We’re thankful to have access to such amazing care teams that have been on hand through this very difficult time for us. Our doctors and their teams have been caring and supportive, which has helped us both immensely.”
Lydia and Anikait are also grateful for the support they have received from family and friends, as well as Anikait’s company of employment, which provided him with complete flexibility and space to focus on Lydia’s health during a very traumatic time in a new country. The couple also encourages anyone dealing with persistent headaches or similar symptoms to visit their doctor and inquire about receiving a scan. “Please get yourself seen by an expert, which can lead to early detection or help rule out anything more serious,” they said.
What the Sharmas experienced in their first two years of marriage most couples don’t ever go through in an entire lifetime, but all of their trials have brought them even closer together. Lydia is especially thankful for everything that Anikait has done for her in his role as caregiver — from providing emotional support, to helping her with daily tasks when she was very sick, to keeping organized notes of her every treatment step. “My husband has taken such good care of me and has done everything he possibly could. I’m eternally grateful to him for that.”