Former Boxer Gives Brain Tumor a Counterpunch

June 17, 2016 7:00 AM

Two bouts with a brain tumor are a lot to handle, but a former professional boxer brought her lessons in endurance to the fight and recovery.

Retired professional boxer Kat Brauer Rice knew she always had to leave it all in the ring. “Krackin’ Kat” never gave up.

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Rice, now a wife and mother of two, used those hard-hitting lessons from her boxing career, and her time as a college basketball player, in recent years to battle her brain tumor.

Twice.

For a take-no-prisoners athlete who went 5-1 in the boxing ring, this medical fight was a deeply personal rematch.

“The second time, when I came to the University of Michigan, I said: ‘We’re going the distance,’” says Rice, a former boxer at the legendary Kronk Gym who now lives in metro Detroit. “Round two needed to go down at U-M.”

Round one

The trouble started in 2008. Rice was frustrated with the difficulty she was having during a graduate school admissions test but didn’t think much of it.

By chance, she got an MRI of her head after falling off a ladder. Results showed something far more severe than bruising: a large tumor in the back of her brain. It turned out to be a ganglioglioma (a rare, slow-growing kind of brain tumor).

Rice had a successful surgery that same year to remove it. And, always the athlete, celebrated her five-year checkup by riding her bike to the doctor’s office.

“I did get hit by a car on the way, but I made it!” she says, noting that the injury was minor.

Round two

Seven years later, Rice again felt like something just wasn’t right. She was having headaches, and her arm was going numb.

Rice asked U-M neurology specialists Shawn Hervey-Jumper, M.D., and Aaron Mammoser, M.D., to take a look.

A follow-up MRI confirmed Rice’s fears: Her brain tumor was back.

“When we found her recurrent tumor, we sat down with Kat to talk about what was important to her and created a plan of action. Kat placed a high priority on family and athletics,” says Hervey-Jumper, a neurosurgeon with the Functional Wellness Initiative.

Rice then spent a week in Florida with her kids, 11-year-old son Brian and 9-year-old daughter Kabri; tried out for the television game show Fear Factor (she didn’t make the cut); and then, in January, mentally prepared for her second surgery.

In a sense, it wasn’t much different than psyching herself up for a bout in the boxing ring.

“I visualized Dr. Hervey-Jumper and (Nurse Practitioner) Tom Ferguson performing the surgery ahead of time,” Rice says. “That’s a strategy from sports. I was then ready for a couple of full-court presses to this tumor.”

The surgery was a success. And just four weeks later, she found herself atop Copper Mountain in Colorado to support her son who was competing in a national snowboarding competition.

“I wasn’t allowed to ski yet, so I hiked for eight days straight at 12,000 feet,” Rice says. “I couldn’t miss it, even though it was difficult!”

After the fight

Although an active lifestyle was important to Rice, she was having difficulty adjusting to the changes after surgery. Given the tumor’s location, she lost some of her peripheral vision.

“She’s an athlete used to performing at a high level, and dealing with a chronic health problem can be difficult,” Hervey-Jumper says.

Rice, meanwhile, took advantage of the many resources provided through the Functional Wellness Initiative, such as neuropsychology appointments with Nicolette Gabel, Ph.D., and physical rehabilitation with Sean Smith, M.D.

“This is a woman who is not going to give up,” Hervey-Jumper says. “She knows how to fight, persevere and continue her active lifestyle.”

The goal, he notes, is to help people like Rice with strategies to maximize what they do well to overcome areas that are not as strong.

That is why Rice now focuses on making sure she and her family do everything they can to lead healthy and fulfilled lives. She stays active (a bike ride for charity is one recent adventure) and encourages her family to join her in eating healthy food.

Despite her victory, the fight continues.

“Although gliomas are lifetime diagnoses, Kat is the poster child for somebody who has a diagnosis and should live for many years at a high level,” Hervey-Jumper says.

Rice is also committed to furthering medical knowledge. She saw the advances in brain tumor research between her first and second experiences. U-M researchers are currently growing cells from her tumor in the lab so they can learn more about the genetics of low-grade gliomas.