Student Spotlight: Taking Control After a Brain Tumor

Longtime member Andrea Corbi Fein giving a presentation about healthy batch cooking at a workshop in early 2017.

“I shot up out of bed from a dead sleep, screaming from pain in my head. I spent the rest of the night awake and in a lot of pain. I remember telling my husband, ‘It’s not feeling better, it feels like something is in there.’ Same thing happened the next night. I saw a doctor who misdiagnosed me with Lyme Disease, he gave me Percocet and antibiotics. The next day the pain persisted so he sent me to the ER. They scanned me and saw a lesion. I had surgery that Friday. My recovery process was six months of headaches and anguish about why my brain tumor happened. But I used it as an opportunity to rebuild better, stronger and healthier than before with a new appreciation for life.”

After more than five years of attending Philly Dance Fitness classes, Andrea Corbi Fein has gotten in the habit of heading to a particular “spot” at each studio. But, the 42-year-old video editor admits, she would have never become so consistent about her fitness routine — or her eating habits — if not for the tumor that turned her life upside down in September 2009.

After a weekend of lingering headaches, the pain intensified, sending the then-34-year-old from her family doctor to Jefferson Hospital. There, a neurologist told Andrea that she had meningioma — a benign tumor that had grown on top of a cluster of bleeding veins on her right frontal quadrant.

“I thought, ‘Okay, so how do you take it out? Do you just suck it out with a needle or something?’” recalled Andrea, who lives in the Queen Village neighborhood with her husband, Dan. “I didn’t realize it would be major surgery.”

It happened too fast to freak out in the hospital, Andrea said. But the near-death experience left her feeling out of control. As she recovered from surgery, she vowed to do whatever she could to enjoy life for as long as possible.

“I honestly felt like I had a brand new life,” she said. “I just started to slowly be more conscious and rebuild.”

Rethinking Food

Before the tumor, Andrea admits that she paid little attention to what she was putting in her body.

“I thought I was being healthy enough,” she said. “But it made me feel like what I was doing wasn’t enough to prevent another occurrence.”

Although doctors told her there was no way to know what caused the tumor or whether it would come back, Andrea decided to focus on the things she could control. She began reading up on nutrition, paying special attention to research examining the impact of diet on chronic disease. She started writing down everything she ate “and how I felt in order to better track the relationship between my diet and health.”

Andrea Corbi Fein (center) pictured during a Piloxing class.

After reading studies suggesting that adults could minimize the likelihood of unnecessary growth — including tumors — by cutting out a protein called insulin-like growth factor (IGF-1) most commonly found in milk and other dairy products, she decided to give up dairy.

Years later, she stopped eating meat as well, inspired by Dr. Michael Greger’s video presentation on “Uprooting the Leading Causes of Death,” which posited that people on plant-based diets have blood that is better at killing cancer cells than those who don’t.

“I wanted that blood flowing through my body,” she said, “I wanted to have the best nutrition and the best blood for the rest of my life. If you tell me something is healthy, chances are I’m going to want that. Because of what I went through, no matter how something tastes, if I know it’s going to extend my life, then I go for it.”

It’s been an ongoing, deliberate educational process, she said.

“You can’t just google nutrition and say, ‘Oh, I’m going to do this.”

Andrea acknowledged that a plant-based diet won’t work for everyone, but at least for her, it wasn’t at all difficult to find meat and dairy substitutes she liked.

“Sure, cheese is great, but now when I have a burrito, I just add more salsa,” she said. “It’s exciting to explore a whole new food group and get new experiences.”

To that end, Andrea went through a rigorous professional plant-based cooking course last year and hopes to use her certification to continue promoting healthy eating. Earlier this year, she shared some of her newfound skills in a presentation on a healthy batch cooking at the annual “Taste of Philly Dance Fitness” workshops. She’s also built a following on her Plantpalooza Philly Facebook page, where she posts recipes, articles and links to local events.

Embracing Dance

As Andrea gradually switched up her diet, she also began to build a more structured fitness regimen. She’d always loved music and movement. In grade school, she was a dancer and cheerleader and even mixed her own music to use for choreographies. For her 37th birthday, her husband bought her a PDF class card. Within a month of her new routine, she noticed that her skin was glowing, her recovery time after workouts was faster and she had significantly more energy.

“I’ve gone regularly ever since,” Andrea said. Amongst her go-to classes are Dance Party Boot Camp and Zumba, although she stresses how much she loves taking a variety of styles.

“We have a gorgeous collection of instructors who speak to different people in different ways through dance,” she said, but all of them are so dedicated to doing their best. And that, she continued, just pushes her to work harder.

“I’m always trying to match Deb’s intensity. It keeps me going,” Andrea said, laughing. “The Philly Dance Fitness family is so pleasant and uplifting. There’s a strong sense of community and excitement.”

Maintaining a Healthy Balance

A typical day for Andrea starts with a bowl of steel-cut oatmeal and an early morning 5-minute plank.

“It took me a while to work up to it but I just watch nutrition videos or music videos while I’m planking.”

She walks during her lunch breaks and tries to get in at least 10,000 steps each day. A few years ago she also took up running as a way to exercise when she didn’t have time to get to a class or just needed to get outside.

During the work week, she munches on a large, colorful salad at lunch, and snacks on hearty servings of fruits and vegetables. 

“I eat a lot,” she said, “but it’s all foods that are good for my body.”

Andrea said she hopes sharing her story will motivate others to make positive changes in their lives.

“All I think about is health,” Andrea said. “Having a life altering experience really opens up your eyes. My health is wealth and I’m so happy with where I am physically and mentally that I want to scream about it to the world.”

When asked what advice she’d give to those seeking healthier lifestyles, she said: “Get comfortable with being uncomfortable because the only way you’re going to get stronger is if you challenge yourself. If you’re in that uncomfortable zone, you’re going to get stronger.”

Article by Alexandra Sanyal, Social Media/Marketing Intern

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