Rancho Santa Fe couple established program for brain cancer patients

When Laurel Amtower was diagnosed with cancer in late 2009, she and her parents were floored. Laurel, an English professor at San Diego State University, had been having trouble keeping her balance, and her family doctor sent her to have a magnetic resonance imaging test, or MRI.

A doctor came into the room and told Laurel, “You have a brain tumor.”

“We had no idea where to go,” said Laurel’s mother, Pat Amtower, a Rancho Santa Fe resident. Doctors later told Laurel her tumor, called a glioblastoma multiforme, was inoperable, and she died about 10 months after her diagnosis.

Pat and her husband, Dick, felt their family needed much more support during the traumatic experience of the cancer diagnosis, and that the follow-up by their health-care providers at the time was chaotic and uncoordinated. They determined to do what they could to prevent other families from going through the same thing.

“We had a horrible experience,” said Dick.

The Amtowers, through a $5.7 million donation to Sharp HealthCare, founded the Laurel Amtower Cancer Institute and Neuro-Oncology Center, which opened its doors in 2015. The center, located at Sharp Memorial Hospital in San Diego, is designed to provide patients and their families throughout the region with state-of-the-art care, as well as a variety of emotional and practical support as they deal with their diagnosis and treatment.

The center’s focus is on brain and spinal tumors, and it’s aim is “to help our patients and families with a difficult diagnosis and difficult times,” said Dr. Charles Redfern, the center’s medical director.

Redfern and the Amtowers spoke with a reporter in a conference room in the cancer center named in tribute to Laurel Amtower, during the month of May, which is Brain Tumor Awareness Month.

The center treats patients from all three hospitals in the Sharp system, including Sharp Memorial, Sharp Grossmont and Sharp Chula Vista. Annually, the center treats about 165 patients with primary brain tumors, and another 350 patients whose cancer began elsewhere in the body and spread to the brain, said Redfern.

In establishing the center, said Pat Amtower, one of the couple’s requirements was that any patient would be seen by a cancer specialist within 48 hours of contacting the program.

“You’re not going to sit around worrying about this,” Pat said.

Redfern said he personally meets with the new patients and helps them come up with a plan for moving forward, which could include treatment at Sharp or referral to another facility.

When you get a brain tumor diagnosis, Dick said, “You want to be seen ASAP.”

“We can design a plan to optimize your chance of defeating this,” said Pat.

The Amtowers moved to Rancho Santa Fe 17 years ago to help Laurel and her husband with their baby daughter. Dick’s background is in manufacturing electronic inspection systems and Pat helped drug and medical device makers get their products through the regulatory approval process.

Laurel’s brother, Rich, lives with his family in Washington state, where he works in the video gaming industry with Nintendo.

The couple has devoted their time to caring for Laurel’s daughter - their granddaughter - who is now heading off to Cal Poly to study agricultural science.

In addition to supporting the Sharp brain cancer center, the Amtowers support such programs and causes as Meals-on-Wheels, education, government oversight and cultural entities, said Pat.

According to Pat and Dick, Laurel earned her master’s and doctorate degrees from the University of Washington, after doing her undergraduate work at UC Irvine. Her specialty was critical theory and medieval literature.

During the semester when she was diagnosed with brain cancer, Laurel invited her graduate class to have their final session at her home. She taught her last class, on Chaucer, online, creating podcasts for her students each week. She also wrote a blog during her illness, sharing her positive approach to dealing with such problems as vertigo and memory loss.

One thing that impressed her friends and family was the strength and positive attitude she displayed during her illness, said her mother. She even joked about her cancer, describing it with a line from the film “Ghostbusters:” “Here we have a Class 2 non-repeating phantasm. Nasty bugger, too.”

Laurel died on Aug. 29, 2010. She was 44 and lived in Encinitas.

For more information about the Sharp brain and spinal cord cancer treatment program, visit bit.ly/2pG6A4l

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