The growth at the base of Bryson Farr’s skull had gone undetected for months, maybe years.
It wasn’t until a hot day in fall 2014, when Farr had pulled his long hair back into a ponytail during gym class, that a peer pointed out the abnormality.
“One of the kids said, ‘Your neck is kind of bulging,’” recalls the 20-year-old Farr, a high school senior at the time. “I never really noticed it.”
The encounter was enough for Farr’s mother, Carmela Berry, to rush her son to a hospital.
Farr had been complaining of headaches and nosebleeds, she told doctors. His pediatrician had also remarked recently that the boy, then 17, was heavy for his age, which led to bloodwork and a diabetic study.
None of that prepared the family for the eventual diagnosis: a rare tumor known as a paraganglioma. With 500 to 1,600 cases annually in the United States, they can produce excess adrenaline that heightens the risk of heart attack and stroke.
Paragangliomas typically develop along major arteries and are most often found in the abdomen, bladder, chest cavity, neck, pelvis and skull region.
In Farr’s case, the growth was the size of a baseball. And it was growing around his right carotid artery, one of two major vessels in the neck that supply blood to the head.
“I was alarmed,” says Berry, who lives in Las Vegas with her two children.
Because of the tumor’s complexity, surgeons the family consulted in their hometown didn’t feel comfortable performing the operation.
The situation was stressful but not entirely foreign: Farr’s father, Grand Rapids, Michigan, resident Derrick Farr, had a smaller, less-invasive paraganglioma removed in 2012 at the University of Michigan.
That led Berry and her son to board a plane for Ann Arbor in search of answers and treatment.
“I had all this anxiety,” says Berry. “But I got a little more comfortable when we decided to come to Michigan.”