You’d think being told you’ve got a brain tumor and 6 months to live would be as tough as things could get.
That was 15 years ago, and it turned out to be the easy part for 54-year-old Jeff Rodriguez of Tamarac, Florida. Jeff survived the brain tumor, but surgery to remove it triggered a painful, facial nerve disorder called trigeminal neuralgia.
It’s caused by a non-specific triggering of the trigeminal nerve in the head, which can result in constant and/or repeated episodes of severe sudden burning or shock-like facial pain.
The intensity of pain can be physically and mentally incapacitating and last for days, weeks, months, or even years. The attacks often get worse over time, with fewer and shorter pain-free periods.
Jeff says, “The pain is excruciating, seven days a week, 24 hours a day. I had no relief, not for a moment. I couldn’t eat, sleep, drink, touch my face, or let my children touch my face.”
Trigeminal neuralgia is often called the suicide disease because many patients have taken their lives due to the extreme pain.
Jeff says, “The constant pain caused me to lose everything. My six-figure job, my wife, my children, my home. I couldn’t work. I had no physical or mental strength. I went to many doctors and they all told me there was nothing they could do except give me medication. They had me on so many drugs and pain killers that I was zoned out. I was told there’s no solution, there are no treatments available, just keep taking the drugs.”
Jeff and his current wife Sabine could not believe that and were not about to give up and accept it. They searched nationwide for a solution and finally found it with the help of South Florida neurosurgeon Dr. Jack Klem.
“By the time some patients arrive to a specialist, they are usually at their wits end and unaware of the complete spectrum of treatment options available. Trigeminal neuralgia is sometimes under treated with medications and patients may accept that nothing more can be done for them,” says Dr. Klem.
But patients do have other options besides medication, including brain surgery. However, it’s extremely invasive and comes with risks, including brain infection and months of recovery time.
Another treatment option, which is totally non-invasive, is CyberKnife radiosurgery therapy.
Dr. Klem says, “Advancements made in CyberKnife radiosurgery give patients suffering from this excruciating condition the ability to regain control of their lives and often make the pain go away.”
Dr. Klem referred Jeff to the CyberKnife Center of Miami which has extensive experience treating trigeminal neuralgia patients for nearly two decades.
Dr. Klem and a radiation oncologist at CyberKnife Miami meticulously mapped out Jeff’s trigeminal nerve and other sensitive normal brain areas for treatment planning. A single treatment lasting about an hour with the CyberKnife radiosurgery is all it would take.
The CyberKnife system works by delivering high doses of multiple radiation beams to ablate or vaporize the trigeminal nerve with extreme precision and accuracy. Unlike Gamma Knife, CyberKnife radiosurgery treatments are pain free, do not require anesthesia or invasive skull frame placement and are performed on an outpatient basis.
Patients come in wearing their street clothes, lie down on the CyberKnife table, and listen to their favorite CD while treatment is administered. Immediately following therapy, they can return to normal activities.
Dr. James Schwade, CyberKnife Miami’s medical director says, “Patients suffering from trigeminal neuralgia should always consider alternative options to surgery and pain medication, including non-invasive options like CyberKnife therapy.”
Typically, patients need only one treatment. If the pain comes, a second CyberKnife re-treatment may be considered.
CyberKnife has a success rate of 75-to-85 percent with less than a 1-percent chance of side effects, which can include temporary or permanent facial numbness or paralysis.
Dr. Schwade says, “Many people still don’t know about CyberKnife Radiation Therapy for trigeminal neuralgia and we’re trying to get the word out to the public about this non-invasive treatment so they know to ask their physicians about it.”
Jeff says the most frustrating part about all of this was being told by doctor after doctor that the only treatment available is medication, and yet CyberKnife has been around for more than 15 years. Jeff had immediate pain relief with just one CyberKnife session.
“Eighty minutes into the treatment, I had them stop because I no longer felt pain. I thought something was wrong because I didn’t know what that felt like any more.”
“I can do anything now. The day my son touched my face for the first time was the most amazing day in my life because he never could do it before.”
“When I first heard about CyberKnife I was a little skeptical because it sounded too easy, but when I got up from that table, I was crying, I was so happy. It’s a miracle. My heart wants to explode with joy. People used to say, you don’t smile, but boy do I smile now.”