Rare spinal tumor: Teleah’s story

photo of Teleah

"One day you’re strutting in stiletto heels and the next day you can’t even walk."

“Then you do what you need to do to pick yourself back up. You suffer and evolve.” That’s how Teleah Wardlaw, age 30, describes the day she realized she had to do something about her rare spinal tumor — but it could describe her life, too.

Proving her point, Teleah recalls her worst year ever: After a magical 2017 Christmas Eve wedding at the Rockefeller Center tree in New York City, in 2018, she endured the heartbreak of a separation, a move to Atlanta with hopes of starting a new life, learning her husband was murdered, getting hurt in a car accident, having money planned for a start-up business stolen by an associate, and ending up homeless for a time. “Then, to top it off, I went to a chiropractor to treat the whiplash from my car accident. When the doctor saw my scans and notes from previous chiropractors, she got this look on her face. She told me I had a mass on my spinal cord and that I needed to consult with a neuro-oncologist.”

“By then, I figured I deserved a stroke of good luck,” Teleah laughs. “In a weird way, the stroke of luck was that because I grew up in Buffalo, I knew about Roswell Park Comprehensive Cancer Center and knew I had a place to stay while I sought treatment there.”

A rare cancer and a rock star doctor

What Teleah didn’t know was that Roswell Park is New York’s only comprehensive cancer center outside of New York City that’s designated by the National Cancer Institute, and that she was about to meet Andrew Fabiano, MD, FAANS, a neurosurgeon who specializes in the treatment of brain and spine tumors. He also serves on the National Comprehensive Cancer Network (NCCN) panel that writes the national guidelines for the diagnosis and treatment of central nervous system cancers and has been named a North American Spine Society (NASS) 20 Under 40 Spine Surgeon.

Teleah had come to the right place. “As an elite, high-volume comprehensive cancer center, at Roswell Park, we have experience and expert specialists, services, research and support teams in place to diagnose and treat all types of cancer, including rare ones,” says Dr. Fabiano. Teleah did indeed have a rare type of spinal cancer, called myxopapillary ependymoma (MEPN). “MEPN is a slow-growing tumor of unknown cause that typically occurs in the lower part of the spinal column,” says Dr. Fabiano. “While it is usually a benign or low-grade tumor that doesn’t typically metastasize to other organs, it can cause pressure on spinal nerves and pieces of the tumor can break off and affect other areas of the spine, both of which can cause paralysis and other issues.

"With many spinal tumors, whether benign or malignant, often the best option is to surgically remove as much of the tumor as possible, and also to treat the patient with rehabilitation, physical therapy, occupational therapy and chemotherapy or radiation as needed, and we can perform all of those services under one roof at Roswell Park.”

“The good news was that Dr. Fabiano explained I wasn’t going to die from this cancer,” says Teleah. “The tumor was grade 1 and slow growing, and at the time I wasn’t in any pain from this and was moving well. The bad news was that I learned I could be paralyzed. But I was afraid of the surgery, so I ran away from Buffalo and Roswell Park for a year,” Teleah admits.

Back in Atlanta, Teleah began promoting a new personalized make-up line and operating an online call center. “Then, one day, I woke up and I couldn’t move my legs to get out of bed. I could barely walk or work, and with my future so uncertain, I called up Dr. Fabiano’s office and told them I was finally ready to come back to Buffalo and be treated. I was still afraid, but I trusted Dr. Fabiano. I knew that with a less-skilled surgeon, a wrong move could destroy me. I didn’t want to just be alive after the surgery, I wanted to have quality of life.”

Why Roswell Park for spinal tumors?

Our Spinal Oncology Center is one of few in the nation dedicated to the treatment of tumors of the spine. With cutting-edge therapies, multidisciplinary care and important support services for patients, we care for the whole person, not just the cancer.

Learn more

A first step to getting her life back

In January 2020, Dr. Fabiano operated to remove the tumor from Teleah’s spine. For the next two months, Teleah was cared for by her mother in Buffalo and soon thereafter began physical and occupational therapy. “I needed a lot of pain medicine and a lot of help with everyday tasks,” she says. “With the help of two very special women, I relearned basic tasks like how to safely sit up, walk, improve my breathing and put on my clothes.” 

“While I was recovering, I had this idea to help open a farmer’s market on Buffalo’s east side. To raise money for it, I decided to produce a talent show, called Saturday Night Buffalo. I’d worked at a store in Buffalo that sold tickets to rap, hip-hop and R&B concerts and I’d met many of Buffalo’s top and upcoming artists and associates, including Rick Hyde, the producer for Buffalo rapper Benny the Butcher. I designed and set up a website, wrote a business plan, and with Rick’s backing, five months after my surgery, we put on a show that ended up being enormously popular.”

The following month, Teleah was declared NED, or no evidence of disease, and she forged ahead. “I regrouped and expanded Saturday Night Buffalo into a multi-media company in both Buffalo and Atlanta, and using social media, television, blogs, high-profile events and launch parties, studio sessions, website creation and more, Saturday Night Buffalo is now a national platform for the promotion of Black musicians, business owners and public figures. I’ve worked really hard to make it a success.”

Today, Teleah is still NED and, in homage to her father, who passed away in late 2022, she’s resolved to take better care of herself through a healthier diet. “I’ve already lost 40 pounds,” she says. “I’m living my best life. If I’ve learned one thing in business and in life these last few years, it’s don’t accept low standards for anything or from anyone. I choose the right people and artists to work with, so my experiences are always amazing and very rich. If you’re facing cancer, choose to work with the top talent at the top cancer treatment center in Western New York. Choose Roswell Park."

Editor’s Note: Cancer patient outcomes and experiences may vary, even for those with the same type of cancer. An individual patient’s story should not be used as a prediction of how another patient will respond to treatment. Roswell Park is transparent about the survival rates of our patients as compared to national standards, and provides this information, when available, within the cancer type sections of this website.