Local news anchorwoman Suzanne Spencer is already a familiar face to viewers of Milwaukee’s Fox6. Over the past year, she has become a familiar face to the Froedtert & the Medical College of Wisconsin neurosurgery team as well. 

Suzanne sought treatment from the team after she was diagnosed with a benign brain tumor. While brain surgery can be an extensive procedure, Suzanne’s viewers didn’t notice any huge scars or other surgery hallmarks when she returned to their screens. She was able to take advantage of an advanced endoscopic technique in which the surgical team enters through the nasal cavity and removes the tumor. The technique requires the surgeon to complete intensive training and is not widely available. 

Innovative Approach Advantage

In the summer of 2021, Suzanne began experiencing headaches and a slight delay as she looked to the right. Her internal medicine physician tried different treatments for the headaches, but Suzanne and her husband, Paul, opted to be proactive and requested a CT scan. The scan revealed a tumor in the cavernous sinus near her pituitary gland, optic nerve and carotid artery. Tumors of this type can be benign or malignant and can grow to cause troublesome symptoms like Suzanne’s vision issues, pain, vision loss and other symptoms. She was referred to Nathan Zwagerman, MD, a neurosurgeon and MCW faculty member who is one of a limited number of surgeons nationwide trained in this minimally invasive, endoscopic method. 

“Historically, tumors in the brain have been difficult to get to because surgeons have to work around blood vessels, nerves and other structures,” Dr. Zwagerman said. “For Suzanne, I thought there was a reasonable opportunity to do the surgery without a big incision.”

Suzanne had the gift of time on her side. Although the tumor was causing problems, it was slow growing and was probably something she had been born with. This allowed her to research her options and consider her alternatives. She could take a watch-and-wait approach, but she was ready for the tumor to be gone. The minimally invasive procedure was appealing, considering her face and image are important in her career. The shorter recovery time meant she’d be back behind the anchor desk sooner. 

“I knew the recovery time was a lot a faster, and I could go back to doing what I love,” Suzanne said. 

Neurosurgical Expertise

The surgery involves a team approach. David Poetker, MD, otolaryngologist and MCW faculty member, carefully considered the optimal access path and opened the nasal cavity so Dr. Zwagerman could take over and remove the tumor. 

“My job is to get Dr. Zwagerman to the problem,” Dr. Poetker said. “Once the tumor is exposed, he comes in and removes it.” 

This is a much different surgery than a traditional craniotomy approach, in which the surgeon makes an incision on the side of the head, removing muscle and accessing the tumor through the skull. Suzanne spent one night in the hospital. During the first six weeks after surgery, she had to be careful not to lift anything heavy or bend over to avoid putting pressure on the surgery site. She was back to her job by early fall. 

This intranasal approach to brain surgery may be rare, but it has become commonplace for Dr. Zwagerman, who estimates he has performed it about 300 times. Not every patient is a candidate for the endoscopic approach. If the tumor is directly behind the optic nerve, for instance, the surgery is not an option because it can potentially leave the patient blind in the affected eye. Dr. Zwagerman hopes more patients like Suzanne will be able to benefit from the technique. 

“By entering through the nasal cavity, we are taking a more nontraditional but less invasive approach, and we have a firm understanding of where we can and can’t go to achieve the best outcome,” Dr. Zwagerman said. “Many neurosurgeons can do a craniotomy, but not everyone is trained in this endoscopic approach.” 

For Suzanne, the past year has been filled with follow-up appointments that indicate the surgery was a success. She has used her position in front of the camera and through social media channels to tell the community about her surgery and the Froedtert & MCW neurosurgery team. And in January 2023, she and Paul welcomed a special delivery — a daughter they named Jane. 

“We felt incredibly lucky to have world-class physicians and facilities so close to home,” Suzanne said.