Teen Ballerina Facing Rare Lung Cancer has Something to Dance About

Danielle Gibbs of Silver Spring, Maryland was in middle school in February of 2009 when she thought she just had a bad winter cold. What the competitive ballerina and dance team member didn’t know was that she had a rare case of lung cancer. At the age of 14.

October 16, 2012

Life-Saving Lung Surgery Uses Small Video Camera, Leaves a Tiny Scar

(Washington, D.C.) - Danielle Gibbs of Silver Spring, Maryland was in middle school in February of 2009 when she thought she just had a bad winter cold.

What the competitive ballerina and dance team member didn’t know was that she had a rare case of lung cancer. At the age of 14.

“Before we knew she had lung cancer, she was told she had pneumonia and asthma,” said Danielle’s mother Anne Marie Gibbs. “But I could tell that my daughter was having more and more trouble breathing until the day her lung collapsed and it was an emergency.”

Danielle saw Blair Marshall, MD, chief of Thoracic Surgery at MedStar Georgetown University Hospital where she used a video camera to perform a minimally-invasive life-saving surgery that spared a good portion of Danielle’s lung and left only a tiny scar.

“This is a terrible diagnosis for a 14 year old girl,” said Dr. Marshall. “Danielle had a four centimeter malignant carcinoid tumor, about the size of a small plum growing into her airway originating from her upper lobe of her lung. The tumor was blocking her entire right lung. Without surgery to remove it, she would have died.”

“When I heard ‘lung cancer’ I was confused and scared, “said Danielle. “I was healthy. I didn’t smoke or do drugs. I just had no idea how I could have gotten lung cancer. My biggest concern, my biggest fear, was dying. I hadn’t even graduated from middle school yet! And I was dancing competitively, but the dancing had been getting harder.”

The highly technical surgery Dr. Marshall performed on Danielle is called a Video Assisted Sleeve Lobectomy. That is, Danielle’s tumor was growing into her airway and blocking the entire airway but there was still healthy lung tissue below the tumor that could be saved. Using a tiny video camera to see inside, Dr. Marshall delicately removed the tumor with the upper lobe, then reattached the middle and lower portions of the lung back onto the air passage way.

“I removed the cancer, then transplanted the remaining lower and middle portions to where the top used to be. That saved us from wasting the healthy bottom part of the lung and gave her a better ability to breathe. I was able to do it with a video camera, so my incision was just about an inch and a half long instead of the traditional 8-12 inches the open surgery requires,” said Dr. Marshall. “What we removed amounted to about 20% of her overall lung function. If we had removed the whole lung, she would have lost 60% of her lung function. Today she would barely notice the effects of her surgery.”

Video assisted lobectomy is the minimally invasive operation used to treat lung cancer. However, not all surgeons use the minimally invasive approach even though it has been around for the last decade. Dr. Marshall prefers this approach as it allows about 50% of her patients to go home the day after surgery. These patients typically have decreased pain and quicker return to work than those undergoing traditional surgery. Because this technique is more difficult than the open technique, most chest surgeons do not use it for advanced cancers. Dr. Marshall has so much experience with performing minimally invasive complicated procedures, that she even uses these techniques in situations such as Danielle’s or in other patients who have much larger tumors.

More than three years since her surgery, Danielle recently received a clean bill of health after a follow-up CT scan. She is a senior at High Point High School in Greenbelt where she still dances on two teams almost every day. She is applying to colleges to study speech therapy and dance.

“I was able to participate in a dance competition at Disney World just a few weeks after my surgery, I was feeling that good,” said Danielle. “I know that Dr. Marshall saved my life and I am so grateful.”

About 208,000 people are diagnosed with lung cancer and about 160,000 people die from the disease each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It’s the leading cause of cancer death in both men and women. But lung cancer in teenagers is almost unheard of.

“It’s very rare for this type of cancer to come back,” Dr. Marshall said. “I know how important dancing is to Danielle. Dancing competitively requires excellent lung function and capacity and I knew she didn’t want a big scar. It was truly a gift to be able to help her in this way.”

Category : Cancer , Pediatrics ,

Back to Top