Doctors wanted to remove a tumor in 17-year-old Ali Nowotny's brain in August, but she had other plans.

The St. Thomas More junior had her eye on the state 2008 Girls Dance and Cheer competition in November. Brain surgery would have put a definite kink in her plans.

So doctors agreed to wait on the operation, and last weekend, the St. Thomas More dance team brought home the Class A Team Dance Championship and four firsts in individual dance categories. The St. Thomas More cheer squad took home a Class A first place in the stunting non-tumbling category.

Ali admits she had a moment or two of doubt about putting off the surgery, but that doubt is long gone. "Coming home that Saturday night (after the wins), it was well worth it," she said.

Now, Ali is preparing for her Dec. 19 brain surgery at Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn. One of the ways she's getting ready is by taking her hair on a little adventure.

"I'm already starting the hair journey," Ali, a brunette, said. "Just two days ago, I dyed it blonde."

Although doctors can do the surgery without shaving her entire head, Ali decided to use the surgery to have a little fun with her friends. Today, her hair is blonde. In two weeks, her friends will color it St. Thomas More blue. Shortly before the surgery, they plan to dye it red and cut it into a Mohawk.

Ali's hair experiment fits her personality, cheer coach Sarah Seljeskog said.

"Instead of making it a gloom-and-doom situation, she has turned it around into an adventure, and that's how she is," Seljeskog said.

Ali first noticed that something was wrong during the summer of 2006. While working as a waitress, she began having once-monthly episodes in which she would "blank out" for several seconds. Afterward, her speech would be slurred. She also began having headaches.

No big deal, she first thought. Then one day, her boss witnessed one of her blank-outs.

An appointment with a neurologist led to a series of tests, including an MRI. The diagnosis: unexplained scarring on the left side of Ali's brain.

Doctors put Ali on seizure medication, which reduced the episodes from the 15 to 20 times one day each month to two or three episodes one day a month. The medicine also lessened the severity of her headaches.

For the past two years, Ali has taken medication twice a day and continued with dancing and cheering. In August, her local neurologist suggested she get a second opinion.

Ali and her dad, St. Thomas More athletic director Craig Nowotny, went to Mayo Clinic in July. Initially, Mayo physicians confirmed the diagnosis of scarring on the brain, but a second visit turned up something else. Ali had a tumor in her left temporal lobe, the part of the brain connected to memory.

Comparing Ali's MRI from 2006 to 2008, doctors saw little growth in the tumor. The color of the tumor also suggests it is benign, but surgeons can't say for sure until they remove it, Nowotny said.

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The surgeon's main concern is saving Ali's memory, Nowotny said.

To locate Ali's memory center before removing the tumor, doctors will do a Wada test. The test is performed by inserting a tube into the arteries in the groin and feeding it into the brain. Doctors then switch off half of the brain with a local anesthetic while the patient completes memory and word tests.

The hope is that surgeons can remove the tumor without touching the memory center.

Although a brain tumor would challenge any family's spirit, the Nowotnys decided early to face things with optimism. Ali's mother, Bette Nowotny, died from cancer when Ali was only 4 years old. Nowotny said he talks about Bette's illness to help Ali handle her own health crisis. "Not one time did she ever say, 'Why me?'" Nowotny said about his wife.

Nowotny encourages his daughter to find the same inner strength during her illness. "That's one of the things I tell my kids: You have to accept the setbacks you are dealt with," he said.

Ali, who strongly resembles her mother's high school photograph, doesn't know if she gets her strength from her mother or father or both, but she has made it her goal not to wallow in worry.

One of the benefits of the dance and cheer competition was to keep her occupied, Ali said.

Now, her hair adventure is helping to keep her mind off the surgery. But she admits she is already looking past the surgery.

"I've even thought about track, which is early March," said Ali, who participates in the long jump and high jump.

Those around Ali aren't surprised by her attitude.

"After her surgery, I guarantee you, she will be up and wanting to dance. … Her surgery will not hold her back," Celsa Oddo, the St. Thomas More dance coach, said.

"She's always looking to the future," Seljeskog said. "She's a cool kid."

School helping out

St. Thomas More, where Ali Nowotny is a junior, has stepped up to help with medical and travel expenses resulting from her upcoming brain surgery.

The school raised money with jeans days and is selling T-shirts that read "Ali Tough" on the front and "Your family has your back" across the back. "They're all here for me," Ali said.

Contact Lynn Taylor Rick at 394-8414 or lynn.taylorrick@rapidcityjournal.com

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