Northwestern Medicine

Internationally Renowned Neurosurgeon Completes Northwestern Memorial Hospital’s First Rare Spine Cancer Surgery

Northwestern Memorial Hospital March 02, 2018

Dr. Jean-Paul Wolinsky one of 22 in the country to perform complex case

Linda Marinez’s life hasn’t always been an easy road. A loving mother and grandmother, her whole life was dedicated to her six children, eighteen grandchildren and two great grandchildren until a rare spinal tumor rocked her world and forced her to focus on her own health.

“It was devastating,” said Marinez. “I had never heard of the condition before and didn’t know where to turn.”

Marinez was diagnosed with chordoma, a rare type of bone cancer that occurs along the spine, anywhere from the base of the skull to the tailbone. Chordomas are slow growing, yet aggressive and life-threatening tumors that only affect one in a million people each year according to the Chordoma Foundation.

Internationally renowned neurosurgeon Jean-Paul Wolinsky, MD, joined Northwestern Memorial Hospital in 2017 and performed successful chordoma removal surgery — the first of this type, at the Chicago hospital — on Marinez. 

Dr. Wolinsky is one of a handful of neurosurgeons in the country who can perform en bloc resections of chordomas, otherwise considered unresectable tumors, or tumors unable to be removed by surgery, to most physicians. 

“If a chordoma is not removed in an en bloc fashion with negative margins, the chance of recurrence is exceptionally high,” said Wolinsky. “Ultimately this means, if you can remove the tumor in one piece, without spilling tumor cells, the less likely the cancer will come back, and the best chance you have for long-term survival.”

Last summer, Marinez was seeing her local internal medicine physician at her annual appointment when she noticed suspicious lumps under her left arm. Concerned it might be more serious, he referred her to a specialist who performed a biopsy on her arm. However biopsy results revealed swollen lymph nodes in that area. 

Marinez had been experiencing pain in her left arm to the point she was having difficulty lifting her arm. Her internal medicine physician wasn’t satisfied with the results and wanted to do more testing. She received a complete body scan which included a thoracic spine MRI and that’s when doctors found a palpable mass on the thoracic spine, or the middle of the back. 

Oncologists at the first hospital she visited couldn’t determine the cause of her pain in her arm. Desperate for help, she sought a second opinion at Northwestern Memorial where she was referred to Rimas Lukas, MD, associate chief of neuro-oncology at Northwestern Memorial. Timing was vital for treating Marinez’s tumor and Dr. Lukas knew he could rely on an experienced neurosurgeon joining Northwestern Memorial in a month who has treated chordomas several times in the past. 

On September 14, Dr. Wolinsky performed a fourteen-hour surgery on Marinez marking the first time this procedure has been successfully done at Northwestern Memorial. The procedure, better known as thoracic spondylectomy, is so complex because the entire vertebra, or segment of the spine, needs to be removed in order to eradicate the cancerous cells. In Marinez’s case, three levels of the spine were removed. In place of the vertebra, metal rods and a cage are inserted to reconstruct the spine and allow the patient to remain mobile and to prevent any neurological damage.

After surgery, the recovery process was difficult. Marinez received in-patient rehabilitation and physical therapy at Shirley Ryan AbilityLab. 

Now Marinez is back to living her life, shopping with her family, spending time with her grandchildren and taking walks around her neighborhood. Her family is expanding. Her grandson welcomed a baby girl, Ariela, on October 18 and her granddaughter had a baby boy named Elijah.

“I’m so blessed I got the second chance at life that I’m not wasting a minute,” said Marinez. “It’s changed me as a person.”

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