Rare cancer tests choral leader
What started out as a routine TB test required of all Pleasanton school district employees about every four years turned into much more than that for popular Foothill High School choral teacher and choir director JoAnn Koobatian, her husband Richard and their daughter Amanda, now 7.
Because she was exposed to tuberculosis as a child and has had positive skin tests as a result, Koobatian also had the required X-ray to show she's TB-free. But the test done in November 2006 showed more--a series of tiny spots on her lungs that turned out to be a rare form of thymic cancer. It's so unusual, in fact, that her local specialists conferred with--and still do--the country's lone expert on thymic cancer who is at Indiana University's Medical School in Bloomington.
Koobatian is a dedicated, determined choral teacher. Both her mother and grandmother were opera singers and her undergraduate degree is in vocal performance. She started the choral program at Foothill in 1996 and now has 112 students in three classes and other singing groups that have won acclaim both locally and in their appearances in Boston, Chicago, New York and Hawaii. Passionately devoted to her profession, her students are just as passionate about seeing her through this challenging stage in her life. And the challenges have been numerous.
First, the discovery of the tiny cancer cells was a shock. Doctors were able to track the cells with CT scans but even better with a PET scan, a procedure that through radiology brightens and lights up the cells to determine their activity. Tumors, found with CT scans, can grow and shrink but without a PET scan, doctors can't determine if their treatments are decreasing the cell activities or not.
Because of widespread interest and worry among her extended family, that includes hundreds in the community, Koobatian, now 41, started a blog shortly after her first chemotherapy. Reading through the reports from December 2006 to the one posted this past May 17, it's much like a book of fiction of a patient's ups and downs, of bad medication and good, of mistakes and progress and, most recently, of the frustrations Koobatian is now having with Aetna Health Insurance, which won't pay the whopping $3,300 per treatment for her needed PET scans.
Trouble started right away when a 6-inch catheter snared into her lungs to deliver the medication got stuck. It took more than a week to get it out, but at least the chemo worked. Doctors said the cancer cells were shrinking. As treatments continued, the medical reports went from good to bad, but then back to good when a particularly negative test was based on wrong information. With a new chemo drug called Gemzar, there's been less nausea and fatigue with her passion for music and her students always buoying her spirits to move forward. This even after a PET scan machine stopped operating with her stuck in it while repair crews spent several hours putting it back in operation. Then last month, she spent 12 days in the hospital battling pneumonia with doctors still wondering what caused it.
She's back to work now, bolstered by the teaching assignment and her devoted choral students who have been busy organizing fundraisers to help pay for Koobatian's PET scans. The choir was scheduled to hold a benefit concert last night at Trinity Lutheran Church. Foothill freshman Vicky Binder is also leading an effort to seek donations, which can be dropped off at the front office at Foothill with Claudia See until next Friday, when the school closes for the summer. After that, contributions can be made to the "Mrs. K Donation Fund," 3404 Ashton Ct., Pleasanton, CA 94588. For more information, check out JoAnn Koobatian's blog at koobatianupdate.blogspot.com.