Aretha Graham lives strong with meningioma brain tumors

Aretha Graham poses for the Elevate Salon

"Just take one day at a time," she says

Aretha Graham is Brooklyn-born tough. At age 50, she looks many years younger and exudes a quiet, Zen-like energy, even though she navigates everyday life with a cluster of noncancerous brain tumors.

She came to Buffalo more than 30 years ago for reasons of family, and she and husband Keith, a native Buffalonian, have been married more than 26 years. Aretha is both Brooklyn tough and Buffalo strong – and Roswell Park Comprehensive Cancer Center has helped her to sustain that double-tap strength and tenacity.

“I’ve been through a lot. I had a stroke and then I had a seizure,” she says. She first noticed she was having difficulty walking more than 10 years ago but chalked it up then to overwork. When things got worse, however, she was rushed to a hospital. “They did an MRI and found out I had meningiomas. I got admitted to the hospital and they had to do emergency surgery. That’s how urgent it was.”

Meningiomas are growths that, in most cases, are not cancerous and arise from the membranes surrounding the brain and spinal cord. Symptoms may include changes in vision, headaches, hearing loss, memory loss and seizures. At one time, Aretha had 10 meningiomas. “I have seven tumors still left,” she says. “I’m prone to having seizures, but I haven’t had them lately.”

When asked if meningiomas have affected other members of her family, Aretha says she believes that an uncle and cousin passed away from the same condition. “But we’re just learning about this through me because I was the first one to go through treatment,” she adds.

Gamma Knife radiosurgery brought her to Roswell Park

She had her first brain surgery in 2010 and, after a second emergency surgery, was referred to Roswell Park to have more tumors removed by Gamma Knife radiosurgery. Despite its name, Gamma Knife does “cut” nor make any incisions. It destroys brain tumors by zapping them with 192 intersecting gamma rays in a procedure that is more precise than any scalpel. This outpatient procedure is delivered in a single day without incisions or anesthesia. Roswell Park is the only Western New York center equipped with Gamma Knife radiosurgery ability and its board-certified surgeons are trained to perform both traditional “open” surgery and Gamma Knife radiosurgery.

“My care here at Roswell Park has been a very good experience,” says Aretha. After two Gamma Knife treatments under the care of former Roswell Park neurosurgeon Robert J. Plunkett, MD, her meningiomas are now monitored by Roswell Park neurosurgeon Andrew Fabiano, MD. “I see Dr. Fabiano once a year to keep an eye on them and make sure there’s no new growth. If there is any new development, the doctors at Roswell Park are hands-on and they care.”

Multiple surgeries and treatments have caused Aretha’s left foot to drop when she walks, and the toes on the right foot are almost completely paralyzed. But while her mobility is limited — she uses a cane — her spirit remains, well, Brooklyn-tough and Buffalo strong.

“I just live my life day by day,” she says, adding that she’s grateful for a good support system which, in addition to husband Keith, includes their son and 12 grandchildren ranging in age from 19 to three.

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Carrying forward the self-care message

Roswell Park’s Elevate Salon has also helped Aretha stay positive, specifically about the hair loss that comes with brain surgery and Gamma Knife radiosurgery. While Roswell Park has long had a wig and head covering program to arrange customized fittings and selections, the new Elevate Salon — opened in 2022 thanks to generous donor funding — now provides these services in a beautiful spa-like setting. Aretha has accessed the salon for a few wigs and head coverings and was asked to help carry forward a message about the importance of self-care during the management of a serious illness. “It’s a good thing because it’s a great inspiration for those who have a hard time accepting losing their hair because of brain surgery,” she says about Roswell Park's Wig and Head Covering Program through the Elevate Salon.

Aretha’s message to others living with the daily challenge of a serious and chronic illness is, again, to just take one day at a time. “Try to keep up your strength and be motivated. Don’t let your experience with a medical dysfunction break you. Just keep being motivated and grateful that you’re here,” Aretha says, then adds, wistfully, “Life is just what it is.”

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.