Lelia’s Story

December 17, 2019

Lelia Wilson had never heard of trigeminal neuralgia before she was diagnosed in 2004. Within months, the pain caused by the rare, chronic nerve condition was controlling her life. Trigeminal neuralgia affects the trigeminal nerve, which carries sensation from the face to the brain. Any type of facial stimulation — brushing teeth, putting on makeup, shaving, swallowing food — can trigger an attack. Even a warm breeze on Wilson’s face would cause an episode. “The pain is unbearable,” she said. “I compare it to having an abscessed tooth. You just can’t live with it.”

Wilson’s trigeminal neuralgia grew progressively worse over time. For a while, the Huntsville resident was able to keep the attacks at bay with regular doses of Tegretol — a prescription anticonvulsant used to treat nerve pain. But if she skipped a dose or was late taking her pill by even a few minutes, searing pain would shoot through the right side of her jaw. The breakthrough came when Wilson and her husband relocated from Mississippi to Huntsville to be closer to family. A neurologist told her about a treatment for trigeminal neuralgia offered at the Alliance Cancer Care office on the campus of Huntsville Hospital. Called stereotactic radiosurgery (SRS), the non- invasive treatment is a form of radiation therapy. A high dose of radiation is precisely delivered to the patient’s trigeminal nerve root, which can break the chronic pain cycle. It’s quick, painless and effective. SRS requires a single outpatient treatment lasting an hour or less. “It’s incredibly gratifying to offer trigeminal neuralgia patients a non-invasive treatment that can provide major quality of life improvements for many years,” said Dr. Jack Gleason, radiation oncologist and medical director of Alliance’s radiosurgery program. “The ability the achieve sub-millimeter accuracy is what makes this and other SRS treatments feasible.”

Drs. Holly Zywicke and Stephen Sandwell, neurosurgeons at Spine & Neuro Center at Huntsville Hospital, work with Dr. Gleason to determine which portion of the trigeminal nerve to target with radiation therapy in order to maximize benefits while limiting the effect on surrounding brain structures. Alliance Cancer Care is the only Novalis Certified Radiosurgery Center in Alabama – an independent stamp of approval that the program meets or exceeds standards for quality and patient safety. Wilson’s radiosurgery treatment worked exactly as planned. She felt better almost immediately and has been pain-free, and off her medication entirely, for more than a year. “Radiosurgery has been the biggest blessing for me,” Wilson said. “It’s improved my life 100 percent.”