News Seth Stratton | one year ago

Cyclist Rides on Despite Radiation Therapy

Claire Cullipher, 41, is the picture perfect model of health. She’s a spin instructor, yoga teacher, mom to a teenage son, high fashion model, and she also recently underwent radiation therapy to treat a brain tumor.

Despite all Claire juggles in life, she always makes time for 24 Hours of Booty, an organization dear to her heart that raises funds for cancer care through a 24-hour cycling event held every July in Charlotte. And even though this year she was undergoing treatment for a brain tumor, Claire still showed up to ride – with her signature pigtails and all. [youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vY6xrRwlAC4&w=560&h=315]   Long before she found out about her brain tumor, Claire starting riding for 24 Hours of Booty after losing her father to cancer in 2000. He went through 18 months of chemotherapy at Levine Cancer Institute before he ultimately passed away. “The first year I rode 18 hours on my bike, in support of the 18 months that my dad was getting treatment,” says Claire. 2016 marked Claire’s 11th 24 Hours of Booty ride. But this year was different for Claire – she was in the middle of radiation treatment for a brain tumor. “Three years ago, I found out I had a small tumor,” says Claire. “But at the time I was told it wasn’t a big deal, and that it wasn’t going to do anything, so I waited three years like an idiot.” Towards the end of those three years, Claire’s headaches got worse and MRI results showed that the tumor had grown and was secreting a potentially dangerous growth hormone. That growth hormone gives 60 out of a million people – Claire being one of them – a disorder called acromegaly, which can cause enlargement of the face, hands and feet. And, if left untreated, acromegaly can lead to serious illness. “I explain it (acromegaly) to people as, ‘what Andre the Giant had.’ So as a model – it may be the most terrifying thing I’ve ever thought of getting. Not just the brain tumor, which is scary, but this part of it is scarier.” Because a portion of the tumor was wrapped around Claire’s eye, it could not be removed entirely by surgery. In order to rid the tumor, Claire was sent to Levine Cancer Institute for radiation therapy. “I met Claire a couple of weeks before her radiation therapy,” says Stuart Burri, MD, director of radiation therapy at Levine Cancer Institute. “She is a memorable person because she has great energy, which she puts to use in many ways, I would say that she is certainly one of those patients that sticks out.” Dr. Burri’s therapy for Claire included radiation five days a week for six weeks, for a few minutes a day. During radiation sessions, Claire wore a special mask, which most patients, including Claire, don’t enjoy very much, but it holds the head still while a strong dose of targeted radiation is delivered. “There’s been a lot of advancements in radiation over the past decade; it’s incredibly exciting,” says Dr. Burri. “We can treat the tumor more and more precisely with less and less damage to the surrounding tissue, so for Claire, we have a very small target where we gave the radiation but the rest of her head got almost no radiation.” That targeted treatment meant Claire didn’t lose her hair or have any outward noticeable effects of the radiation. “Our techniques to control and destroy tumors are better than ever and the risk of side effects are far less, so the quality of life for our patients has improved tremendously.” Since this year’s 24 Hours of Booty fell in the middle of treatment, Claire’s body was much weaker than years past. But that didn’t slow her down one bit. She planned on doing a few laps and calling it a wrap, but ended up pushing through and riding all night with her son. And ultimately she raised $65,000 for Levine Cancer Institute. “There are people going through treatment for cancer that are seriously riding a lot – a lot a lot. It’s amazing. And it totally motivates me. And hopefully that also motivates other people to get out there and do it,” says Claire. “It’s pretty cool to be in the waiting room with people and know that I raised money that’s helping them. And how awesome to grow up in Charlotte and realize, this place (Levine Cancer Institute) is here – people can get treatment here – and we have great doctors here to help.” While Claire’s brain tumor is still being carefully treated and monitored by Dr. Burri and his team, she is doing great and living life to the fullest. “Right now I still have acromegaly, and I’m receiving monthly injections to treat it, but I absolutely refuse to ditch a positive attitude,” says Claire.