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'Science guy' recovers from chordoma with surgery, proton beam therapy

Lawrence Matenson at work at Cohen Children's Medical Center. Proton beam therapy helped him recover from chordoma.

His body was trying to grow another skull.

Lawrence Matenson, a pharmacy technician at Cohen Children’s Medical Center, is used to providing medicine for relief. But in 2015, the East Meadow resident could not find relief for his frequent migraines and eye pain.

He first thought that his symptoms were stress- and diet-related. Yet they became more frequent and painful, making it hard to get through the work day.

Mr. Matenson thought an MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) scan was the next step, and his primary care doctor agreed. The scan revealed a mass about the size of a half-dollar near his brain stem. The location made a biopsy impossible, so he wouldn’t have a definitive diagnosis for months. In the meantime, his symptoms persisted.

“I was thinking ‘I have a brain tumor,’” said Mr. Matenson, now 42. “I’m a science guy, and I needed to know what it was.”

Months later, a follow-up MRI showed that the mass had grown to the size of a ping-pong ball. Surgery was scheduled with Mark Eisenberg, MD, chief of neurosurgery at Long Island Jewish (LIJ) Medical Center. He removed the tumor with assistance from the physician who pioneered the surgery — Peter Costantino, MD, executive director of head and neck services and chair of otolaryngology at Lenox Hill Hospital.

quotation mark At every step, I have felt that they care. They understand what people with cancer are going through.
Lawrence Matenson

The mass was diagnosed as a chordoma. This type of tumor forms from cells of the notochord, an embryonic structure that helps the spine to develop. The notochord disappears after about eight weeks of fetal development, but some cells remain behind in the bones of the spine and skull base. Very rarely, these cells develop into cancer. Malignancies usually manifest in mid-life.

“My body was trying to build another skull,” Mr. Matenson said.

Precise radiation therapy

After surgery, he underwent targeted proton beam therapy in Somerset, NJ, at ProCure, an affiliate of Northwell Health. Proton therapy precisely targets tumors, reducing radiation exposure to surrounding healthy tissue. As a result, you can receive higher, more effective, doses of radiation. Mr. Matenson had 42 sessions over nine weeks. He stayed with relatives nearby during treatment.

“Everything about my case is best-case scenario,” he said. He reported that he had few side effects. “I was a little tired and I had a little pressure on the inside of my head and a little swelling in my gums. Most of the time, I was fine.”

Mr. Matenson said he feels lucky to have such great treatment by doctors and nurses throughout his care at Northwell Health and ProCure.

“At every step, I have felt that they care,” he said. “They understand what people with cancer are going through.”

Mr. Matenson visits ProCure every six months for post-treatment follow-up and regularly undergoes MRIs to check for signs of a tumor. He has had no sign of recurrence to date, and the future looks bright.

“I had faith I had the best doctors and the best care, and I trusted them,” he added. “I feel fantastic.”