Chase Curry admits his 32nd birthday on April 22 was a strange one, to say the least.
Beyond celebrating with family—including his wife Lindsay, 34, and one-year-old daughter Kayla—the South Bay native had some unusual tasks planned.
For one, he signed an employment contract for next year at the charter school in Gardena where he works as a history teacher.
He also had his first radiation mask made in light of an extremely rare brain cancer diagnosis April 11.
“I said alright, if you’re going to contract a guy who has brain cancer, let me sign before you change your mind,” Chase joked.
Recurring migraine episodes
It was around last Thanksgiving when Chase began experiencing debilitating nausea and vomiting.
Then 31 years old, the Torrance resident and graduate of Redondo Union High School was having difficulty keeping food and fluids down.
“My symptoms left after maybe a week, but then they would come back once every two months or so,” he explained.
Chase also began having intense migraines with severe light and sound sensitivity, which he had never before experienced.
The recurring episodes prompted emergency room trips to Torrance Memorial Medical Center in January and March.
“He had to have a face mask on and ear plugs in because light and sound were too painful,” said Lindsay, explaining her husband was too weak to walk or stand and had to be wheeled into the ER each trip.
Medical professionals believed Chase’s issues were gastrointestinal, suggesting everything from an internal staph infection or appendicitis to a peptic ulcer. His headaches were deemed to be the result of dehydration.
However, when multiple abdominal scans and blood work revealed no such cause, Chase was repeatedly sent home without real answers.
One ER doctor, who tended to Chase on his March 20 visit, guessed his symptoms might be stressed related—a frustrating response for the Currys.
“That doctor gave me a Valium. And I said 'Sure, I’ll take it right now because this sucks. But I really don’t think this is stress,'” Chase said.
Finally, a brain scan
On March 21, the day following the stress diagnosis, Lindsay returned home from her work as a first grade teacher at Lunada Bay Elementary in Palos Verdes to find Chase still in bed with no improvement.
The Currys returned to the ER and this time emphasized Chase’s head pain.
“Every nurse or doctor that would come to talk to me would say, 'Oh you’re here for abdominal pain.' It drove me crazy,” Chase exclaimed. “Don’t always trust what doctors tell you, you have to be your own advocate."
The couple's pleas were heard when a new doctor acknowledged Chase’s severe headaches were odd considering he had no medical history of migraines.
So she ordered a scan of his brain.
“I’ll never forget that moment,” Lindsay remembered. “I was getting teary-eyed when she said we should do a CT scan of the brain. Not that I knew what it was exactly, but I just knew there was something wrong with him and no one could figure out what it was. We were in the back room of the ER. She opened up the curtain and said, 'We found a mass.'”
The scan revealed Chase had a walnut-sized tumor in his right frontal lobe, which had been periodically swelling and causing his intermittent symptoms.
Chase was immediately put on anti-seizure medication and wheeled to the intensive care unit to await an operation to remove the mass.
Nurses also told the Currys not to fear —that 70 percent of brain tumors are found to be benign.
“We were really holding on to that,” Lindsay said.
Removing the tumor
Following discovery of the tumor in his brain, Chase waited five days in the hospital before finally undergoing a four-hour procedure March 26 to remove it through an access point in his jaw muscle.
His surgeon was able to remove the tumor in its entirety, charring a portion near his brain stem.
“That’s the amazing thing. They took out the whole thing,” Lindsay said.
“It’s going to feel like you just lost a small fight to Mike Tyson,” Chase chuckled of how his neurosurgeon explained of how he would feel post-operation.
He seemed to be rapidly healing after the surgery and was sent home after just two days.
The avid soccer player and body boarding enthusiast was even able to exercise a bit.
“I was making exponential growth each day after the surgery,” Chase said, noting he told his boss he’d be back in the classroom by his birthday. “I thought I was going to keep making this growth, get back to work and this was going to be a distant memory.”
Unfortunately Chase’s battle had only just begun, as he and Lindsay would soon discover.
“We had to wait about two weeks to get the biopsy results so we were still hopeful it was benign,” Lindsay explained.
On April 11, the Currys were told Chase’s tumor was a malignant, grade IV glioblastoma—the same type of highly aggressive brain cancer that killed John McCain at age 82 last year.
“The news was absolutely devastating,” Lindsay said.
A glioblastoma is extremely rare for someone of Chase’s age, according to the National Cancer Institute, which states a majority of patients diagnosed with brain and nervous system cancer are typically between the ages of 55 and 64.
Patients who are 20 to 34 years old make up only 8.9 percent of these cancer diagnoses, according to NCI.
“When I heard glioblastoma, I thought what the h**l is this thing? And what does the outlook look like?” Chase said.
He admits he began Googling to learn more and discovered the median age for survival after diagnosis was just 15 to 16 months—a fact confirmed by a radiation oncologist.
“She was speaking to us as if the treatment is not going to cure me, but just extend my life,” Chase said. “She kind of said it’s not a question of if it comes back but when. That was particularly tough to hear.”
Indeed, the statistics surrounding brain cancer can be daunting.
The 5-year survival rate for people between the ages of 20 and 44 diagnosed with a glioblastoma is 19 percent, according to the American Cancer Society, which states age and overall health can play important factors in patient outlook.
To make matters worse, further testing revealed Chase's cancer is wild type as opposed to mutant type, meaning it forms finger-like projections and is more difficult to eradicate.
It was also determined traditional chemotherapy would not be an effective treatment for him, according to the Currys.
“I just felt like every time we went to an appointment, the news just kept getting worse and worse,” Lindsay lamented. “It’s literally the worst type of cancer you could have and it just kept getting rarer and rarer for someone his age to have each specific thing.”
In lieu of chemotherapy, doctors advised medical trials with concurrent radiation may be the best option for Chase’s treatment.
Chase has been accepted into a 30-person, nationwide trial at UCLA and starts radiation May 6.
Planning for the future
While they await the next step in Chase’s battle, the Currys are focused on making the most of their time together and with their baby girl.
“I’d really like Chase to do a lot of firsts with Kayla like first time on a carousel or first time eating an ice-cream,” Lindsay said, noting their 13-month old daughter had not yet been to Disneyland. “This process makes you really grateful for the time you have. It’s kind of like a reminder to be in the present and focus on being grateful for today.”
Both teachers are taking the rest of the school year off in light of the diagnosis, leaving them with little income except for Chase’s disability payments, which equate to roughly 60 to 70 percent of his pay, he said.
“I am worried about the medical bills. We’re both on teachers’ salaries,” Lindsay said, explaining they have already used their sick days and that the couple are on a limited HMO health insurance.
The South Bay community has started a GoFundMe to help the Currys with medical expenses, bills and caring for young Kayla.
The fundraiser has accumulated just under $44,000 of the $50,000 goal thus far.
“It’s so great that the money aspect is taken off our plates a bit so we can focus on our family and healing,” Lindsay expressed in gratitude. “It’s amazing how people are so supportive and loving.”
The couple is also making plans for the future, with Chase intending to return to work in the fall.
“I do want to work because that’s part of normal life. I don’t want to just sit at home and feel like I’m rotting away,” he said. “If you’re doing something, you’re not just sitting there thinking about the stats and the odds.”
Chase said while he fears not seeing Kayla reach her third birthday or not being able to grow old with Lindsay, he tries to remember the statistics don’t define him.
“That’s big. I try to be really positive. I always want to find something to kind of smile or laugh about,” he said.