Giuseppe Lanzino, M.D., opened the door to the presurgery area and scanned the room. There, a few feet in front of him, was his patient, 29-year-old Kaidra Froelich, breastfeeding her 6-month-old daughter. The sight of mother and daughter froze the Mayo Clinic neurosurgeon where he stood. "Seeing that broke my heart," he says. But it also redoubled his motivation to remove the glioma brain stem tumor that had brought Kaidra to Mayo Clinic just days earlier.
Before her diagnosis, Kaidra, who lives in Bismarck, North Dakota, had built a successful life for herself. A wife, mother, daughter and friend, Kaidra was enjoying her family, her friends and her career as an elementary school physical education teacher. She spent her summers on softball fields and at her family's lake house in Minnesota.
Kaidra's world began to change, however, when she started feeling numbness on the right side of her body. As she considered her symptoms, Kaidra's thoughts immediately went to a dark place. "I went in to see my primary care doctor, and I told her, 'I either have multiple sclerosis, or I have a tumor that's pressing on my nerves,'" Kaidra says. "She was like: 'Whoa, whoa, just relax. Don't think that craziness.'''
Kaidra couldn't shake her fear as she waited for the results of a blood test and MRI. "My doctor called me two hours after the MRI and asked me to come back in," Kaidra says. "We all went in — my husband and my two young girls came with me — and she said: 'You do have brain cancer. There's a glioma on your brain stem, and you need to start driving to Mayo Clinic right now. I'll call and get everything set up for you.'"
Kaidra's mind began to spin. "At the time, I didn't realize people can actually survive a brain cancer diagnosis, so I went to Mayo Clinic scared to death that I'd be dying soon," she says.
That mindset began to change once Kaidra and family arrived at Mayo Clinic in Rochester, and they met Dr. Lanzino; his resident, Megan Kaszuba, M.D.; and the rest of the care team. "The first thing he wanted to do was meet my family. I couldn't believe doctors at such a distinguished hospital like Mayo Clinic would do that kind of thing for their patients. I was like, 'Do they do this with everyone here?'"
"I remember Dr. Lanzino coming over, putting his hands on my face, and saying, 'Kaidra, everything is going to be OK.'"Kaidra Froelich
The first order of business was to confirm Kaidra's diagnosis. "He wanted to run some additional tests because the glioma wasn't showing up brightly on my MRI scans," she says. "So he wasn't confident that's what it was, and he didn't want to perform surgery if it wasn't."
The test results confirmed the tumor was a glioma, and it needed to be removed right away. Surgery was scheduled for the next day.
"I was scared out of my mind and bawling the entire time. But as they were giving me the anesthesia, I remember Dr. Lanzino coming over, putting his hands on my face, and saying, 'Kaidra, everything is going to be OK.'" And when she woke up a few hours later, it was. "When I came out of anesthesia, I could feel and move everything," Kaidra says. "I was very thankful and relieved."
After surgery, life returned to normal for Kaidra and her family. It stayed that way until one summer evening when, on a softball field in Bismarck, Kaidra started having familiar symptoms. "I tried running to first base, but my right leg wouldn't move," she says.
A year before, almost to the day, Kaidra had first been diagnosed with her glioma. She again feared the worst, despite her family's attempts to reassure her. "My mom and husband were like: 'Your scans have been clear for six months. Just relax.' But I know my body. I knew the cancer was back."
When Dr. Lanzino called a few days later with the results of an MRI she'd had done in Bismarck, Kaidra's instincts once again were proven to be correct. "The tumor had regrown in the exact same spot on my brain stem," she says. "Dr. Lanzino asked if I could come back to Mayo as soon as possible because we had to get it out again."
After arriving at Mayo Clinic, Kaidra went through the same steps she'd done the year before. Except this time, after another MRI, there was a new heartbreaking twist.
"After the MRI, I met Drs. Lanzino and Kaszuba, and their nurses at the nurses station," Kaidra says. "They all had red eyes like they'd been crying." Kaidra soon would find out why. "They told me the MRI had found six additional tumors on my spine."
Kaidra was emotionally overwhelmed. But she says she knew the doctors and nurses standing around her were the best — and the ones she wanted by her side.
As Kaidra's cancer battle continues now, she's moving forward with an exacting treatment plan laid out for her by Dr. Lanzino and her Mayo Clinic neuro-oncologist, Michael Ruff, M.D.
"Last year, after my initial diagnosis, I did six weeks of radiation and low-dose chemotherapy, followed by another six months of high-dose chemo. I did really well on that treatment plan," Kaidra says. "I recently had my first chemo infusion this time around, and I'm also scheduled for three weeks of proton beam radiation and more chemo after that to try and kill off some of these tumors on my spine."
Although she knows the road forward won't be easy, she has confidence in her Mayo Clinic team. "I think the biggest thing is I trust Drs. Lanzino and Ruff, and everyone else on my care team with my life," Kaidra says. "I just want to be alive. That's where I'm at right now."
It's also where the more than 1,800 members of her "Kaidra's Good Vibe Tribe" Facebook group are at, too. "When a friend of mine asked if he could create the group for me after my first diagnosis, I thought: 'I don't know. Are people really going to be interested enough to follow something like that?'" Kaidra says. "It's been crazy to see just how much people can come together. The love and support I've gotten from people all over the world has been amazing."
"Despite everything I've gone through, I feel blessed. I can't imagine going anywhere else or having anyone else take care of me."Kaidra Froelich
Every bit as amazing, Kaidra says, is the unconditional support she's received from her care team at Mayo Clinic throughout her journey. "I'm involved in other cancer-related groups, and other patients are saying things like, 'My doctors told me to enjoy life because I only have one to three years left to live,'" Kaidra says. "I've never been told that at Mayo Clinic — not once. That alone has been very uplifting and positive for me."
"Dr. Ruff has always said from the start that if plan A doesn't work, we have plan B. And if plan B doesn't work, we have plans C, D and E," Kaidra continues. "There's always something else in the back of his mind to try. He's always researching things for me and talking to other doctors to try and get the best care possible for me. I've come to know other patients who also have Dr. Ruff, and he's that same way with all of them. He's right there in the front seat of this roller coaster with us."
But it's a roller coaster Kaidra is ready to stop riding. "Everything that's happened to me so far has been rare," she says. "So I'm thinking that if everything that's happening to me is rare, then I can be that rare patient who beats it all. That's exactly what I've told Drs. Lanzino and Ruff. I've said, 'I promise you that I will be your miracle.'"
Kaidra knows there's no better place for that than Mayo Clinic. "I love Mayo Clinic and all of my doctors," she says. "My entire care team has become like family to me. Despite everything I've gone through, I feel blessed. I can't imagine going anywhere else or having anyone else take care of me."
Her care team can't imagine that, either. "Kaidra's an incredible person," Dr. Ruff says. "She's the kind of person who makes you get up every day and believe in what you are doing. We're all in this together for her."