Lauren Dirling Story: How One Athlete Overcame Brain Tumor

Cross-training isn’t for everyone.

It takes physical and mental toughness to get through this intense aerobic and strength-training regimen — particularly on a near daily basis.

Lauren Dirling works out five days a week at an Irwin, Pennsylvania cross-training gym. The same discipline that gets her through her grueling workouts also got her through one of the hardest moments in her life.

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Troubling Symptoms

24-year-old Lauren Dirling had just a few weeks remaining until college graduation. She gathered her belongings, grabbed breakfast, and drove to California University of Pennsylvania to prep for finals week.

But that morning, she noticed something was off: Her leg kept shaking.

Between class and work, the trembling continued, so Lauren stopped into the campus doctor’s office. She was prescribed a steroid and told to continue with her day.

Learn more about neurosurgery at UPMC. 

An hour later, she got a call from the campus doctor. “I don’t have a good gut feeling about all this. Will you please get a brain scan?”

The Path to UPMC

A few hours after completing her brain scan, Lauren met with her primary care doctor, who told her she needed to be prepared for the worst. “I knew that scan wasn’t going to come back clean,” Lauren said.

It didn’t. She learned there was a massive tumor in her brain.

Lauren’s doctor had recently met Daniel Bursick, MD, a UPMC neurosurgeon, and she called him personally to schedule an appointment for Lauren. Just 12 hours later, Lauren was face-to-face with Dr. Bursick. The news was hard to take — Lauren had a massive brain tumor resting on her cerebellum. Although it was not cancerous, it needed to be removed immediately.

Four days later, Lauren had surgery at UPMC Mercy. During the intense, seven-hour procedure, surgeons removed a plum-sized epidermoid tumor from her cerebellum.  An epidermoid tumor occurs when skin cells become trapped within the skull, brain, or spine within a developing brain.

They occur in less than 1 percent of all brain tumors. Fortunately for Lauren, these tumors do not grow back after removal.

As it turned out, the leg shaking had nothing to do with the tumor. “It was terrifying. The tumor could’ve been fatal.”

Following the surgery, she moved to the intensive care unit with a quarter of her head shaved and 20 staples lining the back of her head.

The Will to Recover

Lauren’s care team told her she would need to spend a week in the hospital. Determined to make it back to class and graduate, she worked diligently on her therapy and was able to leave the hospital after only four days.

Just six weeks later, Lauren graduated with the highest honors and received the “Most Outstanding Graduate” award.

Now, eight years since her surgery, Lauren is living a healthy lifestyle alongside her husband, Chris. She works out five days a week and is happier and stronger than ever before. No matter how difficult her training is, Lauren goes to the gym with a positive attitude and a smile.

Lauren still keeps in touch with Dr. Bursick. She has sent him photos and emails of her wedding, college graduation, and world travels. He always responds

“Not many people get a true second chance at life, and I did. How lucky am I?”

About Neurosurgery

The UPMC Department of Neurosurgery is the largest academic neurosurgical provider in the United States. We treat conditions of the brain, skull base, spine, and nerves, including the most complex disorders. We perform more than 11,000 procedures each year, making our team one of the most experienced in the world. Whether your condition requires surgery or not, we strive to provide the most advanced, complete care possible. Our surgeons are developing new techniques and tools, including minimally invasive treatments. Find an expert near you.