Danielle Gillespie’s Fourteen-Year Triumph Over Brain Cancer


Danielle Gillespie. Photo by Doug Marrin

Danielle Gillespie, a 35-year-old nurse and a survivor of glioblastoma, recently shared her remarkable journey of resilience and courage.  In a candid interview to recognize Glioblastoma Awareness Day on July 19, the Saline resident relived her diagnosis, treatment, and recovery from one of the most aggressive forms of brain cancer. Her experience demonstrates a beacon of hope for those facing similar challenges, and her story is a testament to the human spirit and endurance.

In May 2009, Danielle was a 21-year-old nursing student at the University of Detroit Mercy. She was embarking on the third day of her nursing journey when an unexpected medical crisis turned her life upside down. While driving with her classmates, Danielle experienced an unusual sensation and was compelled to pull over. Suddenly, she suffered a grand mal seizure, an event that initiated a cascade of unforeseen circumstances and ultimately led to her cancer diagnosis.

Danielle’s scans showing the golf-ball size tumor (L) and the hole after its removal (R). Courtesy Danielle Gillespie.

Danielle recalled the terrifying moment: "I was driving and felt funny. Like I was going to pass out. I pulled over and had a seizure." Taken by EMTs to a local community hospital, an unexpected discovery was made. A CAT scan revealed a brain mass, about the size of a golf ball, nested within her brain.

The revelation was alarming, and the significance of this discovery was not lost on Danielle nor her network of friends and acquaintances within the medical community. She was advised to seek care at Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit.

This referral turned out to be fortuitous, as Danielle stated, "I was very lucky. I saw the neurosurgeon at Henry Ford the next day." She was immediately scheduled for a craniotomy, a surgical procedure to remove the brain tumor. The surgery took place about a week after her initial CAT scan. The urgency of the situation reflected the seriousness of her condition.

Danielle recalled the uncertain time, "they didn't know what was right. You don't know exactly what it is until you get a piece of it and put it under a microscope." The unexpected nature of her diagnosis and the rapid pace of events left little room for processing her ordeal. The reality only started to sink in when she received her definitive diagnosis: Glioblastoma.

Danielle said, "After surgery, they confirmed it was a glioblastoma. I met with a neuro-oncologist after surgery. After surgery, they look at it under the microscope. They kind of figured that's what it was, but they weren't sure." The diagnosis led her down the "deep, deep dark hole of the internet," where she started researching her condition, and what she found only sank her deeper into despair.

“In those first few days, you're in shock,” said Danielle. “There are so few benign brain tumors out there, and there are different types and different survival rates. I was so desperate, clawing at straws. It’s easy to go down that deep dark hole on the internet reading about it all. That's your biggest enemy.”

Danielle beat the odds and had a second daughter after her chemotherapy. Courtesy Danielle Gillespie.

Glioblastoma, or GBM, is a particularly aggressive brain tumor with a grim prognosis. The average life expectancy after diagnosis is approximately 15-18 months, the 5-year survival rate is less than 7%, and the 10-year survival rate is less than 1%. The standard treatment regimen for GBM has remained stagnant for approximately 20 years, involving a triad of surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy.

Danielle underwent an intense treatment regimen that began with surgery, followed by six weeks of concurrent chemotherapy and radiation. After the radiation concluded, she was put on a modified chemotherapy schedule—seven days on, followed by 23 days off—for a full year. Her resolve, determination, and expert medical care led to clear scans after her treatment ended.

The impact of the diagnosis and her harrowing journey through the treatment was not lost on Danielle. At the tender age of 21, she was forced to confront her mortality, an experience most individuals her age couldn't fathom. She admitted that her diagnosis forced her to appreciate that every day she woke up healthy and functioning, a feeling she didn't take lightly.

A mother to an 18-month-old child at the time, Danielle's diagnosis also put her face-to-face with the fear and uncertainty surrounding her fertility post-treatment. "You ask about fertility with chemotherapy and how this affects your body, and their answer is, ‘We don't know. ‘People your age don't get this tumor and hasn't been studied,’" she noted, highlighting the harsh realities of being a young adult diagnosed with such an aggressive disease.

The glioblastoma journey has profoundly impacted Danielle's life and worldview. She recalled, "I think at 21, to face your own mortality to really, like, sit and think about, like, life or death. I mean, most 21-year-olds don't even think about that." This intense experience, coupled with her work as an emergency room nurse, forced her to grapple with the fragility of life daily.

A year after her diagnosis, Danielle returned to school and continued her nursing career. Despite the looming threat of recurrence, she resolved to live her life to the fullest, noting that her life now operates on a different rhythm. "I go every November for an MRI...Because it's always going to be a part of me, it's always going to be part of my story, part of my life," she stated.

Danielle can’t say enough about her care at Henry Ford Hospital. “They were wonderful. They made me feel like family. I'm still in contact with most of them. They took the time to listen to my concerns. Their facilities are state-of-the-art at the Brain Tumor Center. It's also a research center. I give it five out of five stars,” she said, smiling.

“This quote really got me through those initial two months of diagnosis and treatment.” Courtesy Daniel Gillespie.

Furthermore, Danielle's life-altering experience inspired her to become a mentor to other people dealing with glioblastoma. She found solace and support in an online community of individuals who shared similar experiences, where she found her calling. "I'm still here for a reason," Gillespie said, discussing her role in the brain tumor community. She provides support, guidance, and a beacon of hope to those in similar situations, proving that life can go on, even when faced with such adversity.

Danielle's story can remind us that even in the darkest times, there is always hope. No matter how great the odds are against us, we will always have a chance. Through her incredible tenacity and perseverance, Danielle provides much-needed inspiration to others grappling with a similar prognosis. Her journey with glioblastoma is one of many journeys that demonstrate the human spirit's incalculable capacity to endure, survive, and make a difference.

“You can’t change fate,” said Danielle. “You can’t change what happens to you. You have to make the best of it. I know it sounds silly and cliché, but you really have to enjoy life, live in the present, and appreciate what you’ve got.”

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