Meet our inspirational Royal Giving Day star!

Monday 24 May 2021

Meet Vicki Baker, the inspirational star of our Royal Giving Day campaign.

Upper Caboolture primary school principal Vicki Baker was diagnosed with aggressive skull base cancer, not once, but twice. Invasive surgery to remove her tumour meant almost half of Vicki’s face to be reconstructed.

The second time Vicki was diagnosed, she had only one wish – to live long enough to hold her newborn twin granddaughters, Maisie and Millie, pictured here with big sister Evie and her husband Russell.

The long-awaited twins were born prematurely during COVID-19 hospital visitor bans.

“I thought, if I don’t recover from this, I might leave this earth and not see them,” said Vicki.

Royal Brisbane and Women’s Hospital (RBWH) Skull Base Service granted her wish, based on ten years of research and treatment developments which have doubled the survival rate for this complex cancer. It is an area of research proudly supported by RBWH Foundation, including a Royal Giving Day research grant in 2020.

Vicki can also thank good-humoured banter between her husband Russell and son Mitchell about a pimple on her eyebrow.

“My husband said don’t worry about the pimple on your eyebrow, look at the lump on the side of your nose!” said Vicki.

The lump was a potentially fatal squamous cell carcinoma. It was hidden inside Vicki’s nose and was travelling aggressively directly between her eyes and towards her brain.

The medical terminology is skull base cancer.

“The GP gave me the diagnosis and told me not to Google it.”

What is the skull base?

The skull base is the interface between the brain on the inside, and the neck and face on the outside. It forms the floor, or base, of the skull and is where the spinal cord, multiple nerves and major blood vessels of the brain, head and neck pass through. It is an extremely complicated area that includes the sinuses, eyes and inner ears.

Head, Neck and Skull Base Surgeon, Dr Ryan Sommerville, heads the Royal Brisbane and Women’s Hospital (RBWH) Skull Base Service. The Unit’s surgical team consists of specialists from Otolaryngology (Head and Neck), Neurosurgery and Radiology.

The Unit was established by Dr Sommerville in 2011 and is now one of the largest in Australia. RBWH Foundation consistently funds research across all its sub-specialties and also supports the Skull Base Cancer Fund.

“Skull base cancers can be tumours or lesions that occur just in the skull base, with no other problems or causes, and those include acoustic neuromas, meningiomas or glomus tumours,” said Dr Sommerville.

“In Queensland though, one of the biggest causes is advanced skin cancer that either directly travels up to and involves the skull base or travels up via some of the nerves and then follows those nerves back towards the brain.”

That is called perineural spread.

“The reality is that all you need to do to have a risk of this type of cancer, particularly advanced skin cancer, is to live in Queensland – any of us can get it.

“The problem is we usually don’t find out until the cancer is a centimetre away from being treatable or untreatable, surgically.”

Due to the location of Vicki’s cancer, Dr Sommerville had to remove bone and cartilage from her nose and left eye socket, resulting in extensive facial reconstruction.

“You come out looking quite different to what you were before,” said Vicki, “But the work that they have done on my face, considering the extensive nature of the surgery, is remarkable.

“It’s a great face considering what I’ve gone through and although I have long term effects from the radiation, I don’t care, I’m on the right side of the turf.”

As a grandmother and primary school principal, Vicki feels especially grateful.

“There’s a lot to be said for a pleasant face when you’re dealing with very young children!”

RBWH research and treatment breakthroughs have dramatically improved survival. When Dr Sommerville first specialised, the survival rate was forty per cent. RBWH Skull Base Unit’s latest figures show an 88-90% survival rate at two years – effectively double. To achieve this however, patients need to go through very extensive surgery and radiotherapy, and sometimes chemotherapy.

“RBWH has world class surgeons and facilities, and some of the finest imaging and radiologists in the world,” said Dr Sommerville.

“What we need is the funding to develop more advanced MR imaging to better inform our surgeons during the operation.

“We also need to develop non-surgical treatments such as immunotherapy to avoid destructive surgery such as Vicki’s.”

Against all odds

Skull base cancer, however, had not finished with Vicki. In April 2020, a second unrelated tumour was detected during a routine PET scan.

For Vicki, the most distressing part of the second diagnosis was the fear of never meeting newborn granddaughters, Millie and Maisie, who had been born prematurely at Caboolture Hospital.

The long-awaited girls, born to son Cody and wife Bernice, were conceived through IVF but COVID-19 restrictions had prevented family from visiting. 

“I thought if I don’t recover from this, I might leave this earth and not see them!”

The second cancer, completely unrelated to Vicki’s first, was located deep in her sinuses and also required extensive surgery and treatment. Ironically, if Vicki was not being monitored following her first operation, the second cancer may not have been detected until it was too late for treatment to work.

“Vicki is an incredibly educated and amazing woman who has taken good care of her health her whole life and is very proud of that,” said Dr Sommerville.

“This is a disease that we can all get and unfortunately, because the treatment outcomes are still not great, we have a lot of room to move in improving things for patients.”

After eight operations in three years, Vicki is now back at work at her northside primary school and loving life with her growing family.

“My life was going along really nicely then one ordinary day, a doctor is mentioning my name with the C word in it,” recalled Vicki.

“It can happen to anybody so we need to put as much money into research as we possibly can so the impact of some of the treatments is reduced and there are alternative treatments as well.”

Added Dr Sommerville: “We have a huge amount of opportunity at the moment if we are able to get funding for research- a whole bunch of things that would make a major difference for us and our patients.”

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