GREENFIELD — They discovered the tumor by accident.
Rachel Batka, 19, was a Greenfield-Central sophomore, visiting the school health clinic for a routine hearing check. It was the kind of thing students grumbled about, an obligation they found pointless.
But for Batka, now a senior just days from graduation, it was an exam that changed her life.
Batka found out during that test her sophomore year that she suffered from minor hearing loss in her left ear. That summer, she went to an audiologist for further tests. He recommended an MRI – a precautionary measure to make sure the issue wasn’t caused by a tumor in her ear canal.
What doctors found then baffled the Batka family.
Batka remembers her physician first explaining she didn’t have a tumor in her ear canal, but that wasn’t the end of the news.
“‘You do have a tumor in the middle of your brain that has nothing to do with your hearing,’” she remembers the doctor saying. “The fact we even found it is a complete surprise. As soon as I heard ‘tumor,’ I was like ‘Oh, gosh, is it cancer?’”
The answer was no. The tumor in Batka’s head, a golfball-sized growth later diagnosed as Trigeminal schwannoma, is benign. But it is growing, posing a risk to the teen’s health. Eventually, she could require brain surgery to have it removed.
In fact, Batka’s doctors are surprised she hasn’t exhibited symptoms by now, considering the tumor’s size.
But Batka remains optimistic, a trait that has inspired both family members and friends. Her upbeat nature has helped her and others cope with the uncertain.
“I’m not worried about it,” she said. “It’s one of those things ... I’m trying not to stress about.”
The task isn’t as easy for her parents, who have done their research and know the risks that come with the treatment Batka will eventually need.
A common side effect of surgery to remove a tumor like Batka’s is paralysis in one side of the face.
“That’s scary to think of,” her mother, Beth Batka, said. “But we’re darn lucky we found it when we did.”
As a result, the family knows what symptoms to watch for. As soon as Batka begins experiencing things like a numbness or tingling sensation in her face, she’ll know the tumor has grown to a point where intervention will be necessary.
Depending on Batka’s age, that could mean surgery or radiation therapy.
But Batka doesn’t want pity, and she won’t accept it. She often makes jokes about her condition and always tries to make others feel comfortable discussing it.
“People as soon as they found out, they feel really bad, they get really quiet,” she said. “When I tell people, I don’t want them to think ‘I’m so sorry,’ I want them to think ‘Oh, fun fact!’”
Batka’s outlook impressed her drama teacher, Ted Jacobs. When she confided in her teacher about her condition, she made it clear that she didn’t expect sympathy.
“She was very much ‘hey, I don’t really wanna bring this up because what I have to worry about is small potatoes compared to what some people have to worry about,’” Jacobs said.
Jacobs and Batka partnered together in 2013 for “Shave your Head for Riley,” a fundraiser that seeks to raises awareness of childhood cancers and money to support Riley Hospital for Children.
They agreed to try raise at least $1,000 between the two of them and go bald for the cause.
They raised $1,400, and the locks came off. But the money kept coming, Jacobs said, and by the end of the event, the pair had brought in about $2,000, he said.
Batka found she loved her new ’do and decided to keep it. She got another buzz cut in February when she raised another $700 for the cause.
Even though Batka’s tumor is benign, the fundraiser experience has connected her with those who have shared their stories and thanked her for her support.
“It really meant a lot to me, just being able to touch so many individuals,” she said.
Batka’s doctors are monitoring the progress of her tumor’s growth, which requires her to visit the hospital every six months for an MRI.
It could be 10-15 years before Batka’s condition requires medical intervention, and she has no intention of letting it slow her down now.
Batka, who will graduate in the top 15 percent of her class with a 3.9 GPA, is headed to Earlham College in the fall to study foreign languages. She looks forward to having the chance to study abroad and get involved in the college’s madrigal choir.
Batka’s approach to her condition has helped the family keep calm about the future, her mother said.
“I’ve been taking so many of my cues from her,” she said. “Her spirit has just been so up.”
There’s no guarantee what will happen when Batka’s tumor begins to affect her, so the optimistic teen is determined to focus on the here and now and make the best of it.
“With getting it removed, it has potential risks, and I want to be able to live things now, just in case things don’t work out later,” she said.
She added, with a characteristic smile: “Of course, I’m pretty positive.”