Injuries From An Assault Led To Discovery Of Rare Cancer In Time For Treatment
FORTY FORT — A few punches to the head last year likely saved Alyssa O’Boyle’s life.
An out-of-control patient pounded O’Boyle in the back of the head multiple times one day in January 2018 while she was working as a mental health technician at First Hospital.
Concussion tests detected something abnormal — possibly a cyst. Further analysis revealed the 20-year-old had one of the rarest cancers in the world, leading to multiple surgeries to remove the tumor and reconstruct her face over the past year.
O’Boyle’s cancer was only the 12th known case worldwide of spindle cell ameloblastic carcinoma, according to her doctors at the University of Pennsylvania.
“I’d rather be known for something else — anything else really,” O’Boyle said recently.
The cancer developed in her face near her sinuses, the result of a rare tooth growth abnormality.
She had no symptoms, however.
If it wasn’t caught when it was, the cancer likely would have grown and spread to the point it was untreatable, doctors told her.
“They said it would have went right to my brain and down my spinal cord,” O’Boyle said.
O’Boyle’s cancer was so rare it was at first assumed to be a benign cyst following a biopsy at a local hospital.
Her family sought a second opinion at the University of Pennsylvania Hospital in Philadelphia. There, a team of world-renowned doctors did another biopsy and eventually made the spindle cell ameloblasic carcinoma diagnosis.
“This was a very complex tumor,” said Dr. Rabie Shanti, O’Boyle’s cancer surgeon.
Shanti said the tooth abnormality O’Boyle had leads to a benign tumor in about one in every 2 million cases. There are only about 12 known instances in the world, including O’Boyle’s, for such a tumor to be cancerous, Shanti said.
O’Boyle turned 21 on March 29.
On April 3, she had her first of three surgeries, a major 11½-hour operation to remove the tumor and much of the left side of her face.
“It was the worst pain you could imagine. I wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy. Every single day I was in tears for hours. I was taking pain pills and it didn’t even help,” O’Boyle recalled.
She has had two more surgeries since, with more work to be done.
O’Boyle credits her mother, Stacy, with helping her get through everything, calling her “Superwoman.”
As of now, there is no more sign of cancer in O’Boyle’s body.
Shanti said he won’t consider her cured until she remains cancer-free for five years. “It’s still a journey,” Shanti said. “It’s not over for her yet. This journey is still going for her.”
O’Boyle is happy to be where she is right now, thankful for a few punches to her head that led to an examination that found the cancer.
“We had no idea the tumor was there. It was an incidental finding. It wasn’t my time, I guess,” she said.
O’Boyle admits she’s very self-conscious about her appearance after the major facial surgeries she’s endured.
“As soon I was able to go out, I wouldn’t even go out in public. I hated it. I just recently started going out with friends,” O’Boyle said.
O’Boyle is hoping to get back to work soon and resume classes at Luzerne County Community College in the fall.
Shanti promises to be a source of support for her throughout the rest of her life. “She is someone who is very important to me. She is one of the strongest people I ever met. She has a resiliency. I’ve learned from her resiliency,” Shanti said. “She is an unbelievable spirit and is very strong minded.”
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WHAT: “Fight with Alyssa” benefit
WHEN: 1 to 4 p.m. Sunday
WHERE: Rodano’s, Public Square, Wilkes-Barre
COST: $25 (includes food and drinks)
DETAILS: Proceeds benefit Alyssa O’Boyle, who was diagnosed with a rare form of facial cancer last year. She was the 12th known person in the world to have spindle cell ameloblastic carcinoma.