Jan. 13, 2012 -- Anna Cole was only 10 years old when doctors found a tumor the size of a volleyball growing in the young musician's chest.
The discovery was by happenstance. Anna's mother, Chee-Hwa Cole, a musician and her father, Dr. Christopher Cole, a Colorado Springs-based cardiologist, noticed a slight curvature on the right side of her back as she sat playing the piano. Concerned that their daughter had scoliosis, they took her to the doctor for routine screenings.
But after a battery of test, including an MRI and a CT scan, doctors discovered a giant mass known as a ganglioneuroma, a rare tumor that begins growing slowly in the autonomic nerve cells. Though benign, the five-pound tumor was growing from the network of nerves that run down the spine.
"My heart just dropped," said the girl's mother. "Time stopped. It was just a nightmare, especially when you know all the things that can happen."
Chee-Hwa Cole said her daughter didn't understand the need for major surgery when she felt fine. Despite the large size of the mass that was constricting her lungs, Anna did not have any significant symptoms from the tumor.
"I just started crying because I was kind of scared," Anna, now 13, told ABC affiliate, WABC-TV.
"It was very scary to try and explain how much to tell her so she felt she was in some control, but not feeling fearful," said her mother. "She asked, 'do I have to get this out? I feel fine.'"
Dr. Steven Rothenberg, chief of pediatric surgery at the Rocky Mountain Hospital for Children in Denver, had removed such tumors in children before, and even travels the world to teach other physicians a new, minimally invasive procedure to remove the tumors. He had never removed one with of such size with the newer technique, though. He wasn't sure whether he'd be able to totally remove the five-pound mass using the new procedure.
"The tumor was taking up more than half of the left side of her chest," said Rothenberg. "Normally, it would take a large chest incision to get it out, but using a less invasive approach with a scope and special instruments, if it's possible, has the best benefit because, otherwise, there is a huge healing process that is very painful."
The standard procedure involves a 14-inch incision across the chest, but despite the size, Rothenberg was confident he could perform the surgery laparoscopically. He told Anna's parents that, if for some reason he decided it would not work mid-way through the surgery, he would revert to the more traditional technique. They agreed.
With the minimally invasive procedure through four tiny incisions, he successfully dissected the tumor from the spine then put the tumor inside a bag, which was still inside her body, broke it up into small pieces, then removed the pieces from her chest.
Only a week after the surgery, Anna was performing at a piano recital. Rothenberg said she never would have been able to partake in the event had she undergone the typical surgery with a large that would require weeks, or even months, of bed rest.
"It was by the grace of God that we found that tumor through the tests," said Anna's mom. "We never would have found it had they not had us do a CT scan. The timing truly was divine."