Brain tumor and back again: WSU graduate reflects on long road to graduation
OGDEN — Tess Wunderlich was shocked to learn the intense pain in her neck was being caused by a brain tumor.
In 2016, she began having pain in her neck, so she tried treating it with massage therapy and chiropractic treatments. When the pain became unbearable in 2018, she visited an urgent care facility and was sent for an MRI.
“They told me they would have the results in 24 to 48 hours,” she said. “But I got a call within three hours telling me I needed to go back to the clinic.”
The then-22-year-old Weber State University student returned to the clinic, where she was told she had a brain tumor and needed to see a neurologist right away.
“The tumor was 5 centimeters and was located at the base of my skull,” she said. “I didn’t really have any kind of reaction at first because I was in shock. Who would ever think neck pain would be caused by a brain tumor?”
Wunderlich was scheduled for surgery to remove the chordoma tumor in February 2019. Chordomas are rare tumors that grow in the bones of the skull base and spine. Surgeons had to cut through her jaw, cut her tongue in half and travel through the roof of her mouth to remove the tumor. She was then sent to Texas for specialized radiation therapy.
“When we got to Texas, they told me they needed to go back in because there was still some cancer, so I had to have a second surgery, but this time they were able to go through the base of my skull,” she said. “My bones had deteriorated so much, they also had to do a spinal fusion.”
Wunderlich had successful radiation therapy and was told there was virtually no evidence of any cancer left. However, she had a long recovery ahead of her.
“I had a feeding tube for seven months and then I had to learn how to eat again, speak again, swallow again,” she said. “I had to take it one step at a time, one day at a time, one minute at a time, one hour at a time.”
Throughout her treatment and recovery, Wunderlich was in constant contact with her WSU instructor, Chere Clawson, who let her know she wasn’t forgotten. She said she was warmly welcomed back to the classroom and earned her degree in medical laboratory sciences this past April. She is now a medical laboratory scientist at Intermountain Medical Center in Murray.
“I always wanted to do something in the medical field and I took an intro to health sciences class at Weber State. They do a really good job showing you all of your options,” she said. “When the medical lab people told us about themselves, I got really excited and knew that’s what I wanted to do.”
Wunderlich grew up in Kaysville and graduated from Davis High School. She now lives in Bountiful with her Scottish terrier, Katy, whom she said helped her through her cancer treatments.
“I call her my cancer support pup. She’s the best,” she said. “I am just so grateful for my family and their huge support through all of this. Every night, my mother would tuck me in and say, ‘Another day. We made it through another day.'”
She also said she wants people to remember there’s only one shot at life.
“So it’s really important to take this one shot doing something you love,” Wunderlich said. “It doesn’t matter how long it takes you to figure it out or how many times you change your mind, just end up doing something you love. I was going through my ordeal when everything horrible was happening with the pandemic, but I was so grateful to be on this planet, and that gratefulness has never left me.”