Let The Music Do The Talking

With everything now behind me, I can now look forward to everything else in store for 2015.  And today, I wish to share with you the early details for our second annual Playing for the Cure: Brainstormin’ benefit concert for brain tumor research.

My mission and goal is simple – I want to spread the word on brain tumors to educate with the hope that my story gives hope to those who are awaiting treatment or currently recovering.  I hope that through this blog, our concert, through The Cusano Family Fund to Benefit Brain Tumor Research (a non-profit corporation which I am working to establish for the benefit of the Yale Brain Tumor Center), and through my work with the CTBTA, awareness will be brought to this very important cause and money will be raised to assist doctors and researchers in finding the cure.

So, mark your calendars for Saturday, September 19th!  My family and I are pleased that The Ballroom at the OuterSpace in Hamden, CT will again be hosting the event and hope to surpass what we did last year.  We hope that you will come enjoy the music of Broca’s Area and other great acts with one common goal in mind: raising money to aid in finding the cure.  Details regarding the event time are still being worked out and will be announced as soon as it is known.  Rest assured though that there will be great lineup of acts and of course, food, drinks and raffles.

My brother Stephen formed Broca’s Area with his classmates at the Hartt School of Music and they have some great things happening right now.  On March 26, 2015, there will be a CD release party at Black Eyed Sally’s in Hartford beginning at 9:00PM.  The album contains five original compositions, all of which I’ve had the privilege of hearing and each song is better than the previous.  

With you, together we are making a difference in the lives of those who are living with a brain tumor and the survivors.  But as a family, we wanted to do more.  So for every CD that Broca’s Area sells, a royalty will be paid to the CT Brain Tumor Alliance (the “CTBTA”).  The CTBTA’s mission is “to raise awareness of brain tumors, provide hope and support for others affected by brain tumors and raise money to support and advocate for cutting-edge research for better treatments and a cure.”  Please come to Black Eyed Sally’s to support the cause and help in this fight!

I am very pleased in witnessing how my family has rallied around my battle – for being able to take something so terrible and turning it into something positive.  Some people tell me that I am inspiration, but if not for my family and the care that I received along the way, none of this would be possible.

Don’t Worry Be Happy

Triumphantly, I made my return to the office last week.  Yes, three-and-a-half weeks removed from brain surgery, I went in.  photo 1I was eager and motivated to do something – better yet, anything other than sit at home and channel surf.  I was well rested and feeling great and had recently received medical clearance from my doctors to return on a part-time basis for a couple of weeks.  But what would I feel like after a 20-hour work week when I had done literally nothing for the past four weeks?  Over time, the answer to this question became clear.

Initially, I was overcome by emotion but also very excited to see my coworkers and peers.  Making the rounds and saying hello to everyone, I felt like an exhibit – “where are your stitches?” and “what are you doing here?” were the common questions.  Perhaps this is my “new normal” but unlike others, I expected to be back that quickly.  My surgeon had predicted I would be out for 3-4 weeks at most and I know how my body recovers and heals.  So when I woke up after surgery with no unexpected side effects, I fully expected to be back to work in no time at all.  Of course though, in a matter of three-and-a-half weeks, over 600 emails had piled up and I needed to sort through them.

Per my doctor’s orders, I was to work no more than 4 hours per day, even though I think I could have done more if I wanted to.  Nonetheless though, I went in and picked up my job tasks right where they had left off before my leave of absence.  Two months before I left, I assumed a new position – Associate Administrator – Marketing and External Affairs.  I decided it was time to step away from my pursuit of the practice of law and instead refocus my efforts in a position to which I felt I could make a career.

I’ll be the first to admit – nobody in the office is more upset than I that I am not an attorney after working so hard for it and putting in the time – but, I came to the realization a while ago that right now, being an attorney is not in the cards for me and just simply not meant to be.  Sure, I was disappointed and frustrated.  I took out student loans equivalent to a second mortgage on law school and was in desperate need of a way in which to repay them.  Furthermore, I had devoted time and money into passing the bar exam three times.  Each time, it was the same result and same old adage – close, but no cigar.  I needed a new goal – something tangible which I knew I could achieve and excel in.  Alas, this opportunity presented itself and I jumped.  I understand the inherent risks in that I am now on a different path than my peers who graduated at or near the same time that I did.  I will watch them as they grow through the ranks of a law firm and make more money than I ever may.  However, at the end of the day, one word assured me of this decision – happiness.

When I think about how I got to this point in my life, I think back on a number of things, namely those who doubted my ability to pass the bar exam due to my cognitive impairments: the neuropsychological evaluator; my law school professors who admired my courage for carrying on; my surgeon’s own admission; my law school dean; my bar exam tutor.  Admittedly, they were all correct.  Yet, my family never once doubted any of my decisions as I moved forward in my life.  Rather, they continually support my daily decisions.  For this, I am forever grateful.

I can’t worry about my future and what successes I’ll find.  While I may not have reached my goal of becoming an attorney, I know success will come because I’ve survived the toughest obstacle of all.  The bar exam may have beaten me down, but my tumor showed me I have what it takes; tenacity, perseverance and the strength to carry on.  I must keep plugging away, fighting adversity and rising to the occasion.  It’s true when they tell you that life isn’t easy.  Take it from me – it’s not.  As the song lyrics go: “In every life we have some trouble.  When you worry you make it double.  Don’t worry, be happy. “

Thank You For Being A Friend

“In sickness and in health.”  Little did I know, a year-and-a-half later, the impact that this phrase would have on my life.  As I headed back to work this morning, I was emotional – overcome with emotion that I had been nursed back to health and able to resume living my life as I had previously.   I am grateful beyond words for all of my caregivers, but especially Ashley.  Over the past month, you have shown me the true meaning of love and what marriage is all about and I could not ask for anything more.   Thank you for all of your support, guidance and encouragement – I love you!

“3 Soldiers Attacked with a Knife in France”, “100 Bodies Found in Police Station”, and “Taking Selfies Likely Caused Plane Crash”; three real-life news headlines from this evening.  If it bleeds, it leads and if you pay too much attention to the ever-present media, the world can seem like a dark and dangerous place.  In today’s world, it’s easy to fall prey to a negative outlook.

When Chris’ surgeon walked in the room to advise us that he would need yet another brain surgery, my heart sank.  While it could always be worse, my anxious self jumped to the worst possible headlines: “Chris Unable to Speak or Function After Brain Surgery” or  “Surgeon Finds Cancerous Tumor Cells After All”.  As humans, we try to remain positive when life throws obstacles in our way.  As caretakers for someone suffering from an illness, we attempt to remain strong, but it’s difficult to not feel defeated or consider the what-ifs.

Despite all the negativity, anxiousness and downright scares that Chris’ new surgery brought, one positive theme emerged: human kindness.  The minute people found out the news, I was overwhelmed with hugs and true concern in the eyes of family, friends and co-workers.  Dinners were prepared for us, visits were made, care packages and cards with inspiring quotes were sent.  photo 1(2)During the surgery, at my most vulnerable, I received countless messages sending love, encouragement and all the luck I could accept.  I was simply uplifted.

While I believe it is important to stay strong and tough on your own, it’s in others’ compassion that we find strength when we need it most.  As a person who needed to be someone else’s rock, it was you that helped me persevere.

photo 2(1)So thank you – all of you – for reminding me to ignore the headlines and to remember that good in the world truly does exist.

If You’re Lost And Alone, Or You’re Sinking Like A Stone, Carry On

I am suffering from cabin fever.  Sitting home, recovering from a brain tumor is painful.  Literally and figuratively speaking.  Time seems to move at an unbearably slow pace and you find yourself reaching for painkillers throughout the day.  So, I decided to offer-up some tips and advice if you’re gearing up for surgery or are home recovering:

  1. Take it slow and easy – it takes a long time to feel better.  You’re probably thinking “Duh, no kidding.”  But if you’re like I was before my first surgery, you may not know what to expect and will find yourself afterwards asking “why me” and “how did this happen?” repeatedly.  Over time though, you will feel better and some days will be better than others.  Stay patient, stay hungry but do not try to push yourself.
  2. Your head will most definitely hurt.  Though the headaches and feelings of discomfort subside within a few days, you will feel as though your scalp is being pulled in every direction for weeks (or even months – so I hear).  This is normal and will get better with time, I swear.
  3. Speaking of your head and pain – take the prescriptions provided to you.  You’ll go home with prescriptions such as painkillers, steroids, acid reflux, not to be gross but digestion problems (thanks anesthesia!) and blood thinners.  Between your hospital stay and when you are discharged, you’ll be on more medications than you probably have ever been on but put your fears aside and take them as prescribed.
  4. Watch out Barry Bonds and Mark McGwire – I’m on steroids too.  Okay, so that’s an exaggeration.  The steroids you’ll be on won’t turn you into a homerun-slugging monster, but they will make you a raging food-frenzied, sometimes angry monster.  After my first craniotomy in 2008, I was prescribed such a high dosage of steroids that I just wanted to eat everything in sight and developed an aggressive personality at times.  Yet, the food tastes so good!  In a steroid induced rage one night in the hospital, I devoured a dish of pasta carbonara in a matter of minutes and had cheese and pasta hanging off my mouth and down my chin.  I imagine it was not the prettiest of sights but I didn’t have to witness it.
  5. You’re not a fire-breathing dragon.  Yes, you read that correctly and here is what I mean.  After major surgery, you will wake up feeling as though your throat is on fire and any time you open your mouth, flames will come out.  This is just an effect of the breathing tube that is inserted during surgery but within a few days, the feeling will subside.
  6. Water is good.  Once you wake up from the anesthesia, one of the first things you’ll want to do is chug a giant glass of ice-cold water.  So long as you’re not water or fluid restricted, your nurse should provide you water.  My advice though – take it slow.  If you drink that icy-cold water too quickly, you could get nauseous.  Heed caution.
  7. You will probably wake up from surgery with all your memories intact.  I was startled by this.  However, this depends on where the tumor was and the manner in which your surgeon operated.  Due to the location of my tumor and with each my five brain surgeries, I woke up from each feeling no different.  A recent study claims that the brain can reboot itself after surgery and the administration of anesthesia.  The brain is, simply put, amazing.
  8. It takes a long time for your nerves to regrow.  Let me be honest – when your surgeon drills your skull open, your nerves are severed and the surrounding tissue is damaged.  But with time,things will begin to feel “normal” again and you’ll start to feel better.  Your life will return to normal and you’ll feel like your old self again.
  9. Rehabilitation may become your new daily routine.  Following my first surgery, I could not talk, form sentences, recite the alphabet, read, tie my shoes, etc.  I needed intense rehab and even still, came up short on living.  Take it day-by-day and do not expect a whole lot out of yourself, especially at first.  Recovery is a process and not an overnight fix.
  10. Treat every trip out of the place that you’re in like a field trip.  Seriously.  Whether it was going to the grocery store, the post office, outside to test my arm strength, a restaurant or any other place, I was elated.  Last week, Ashley got me out of the house and went to Starbucks!  I was psyched.  If you’re worried like I am that someone will see your scars and look at you differently, grab a hat or ski cap to cover your head and live!  You’ll be happy that you did.

Accomplishing these ten things will not only give you a sense of achievement, but it will also provide you a sense of pride and victory.  Recovery can be a dark, lonely place but if you’re able to make the best of the days, you’ll find that it isn’t so bad.

Hanging Tough, Staying Hungry

I turned over and looked over at the alarm clock – it was 4:59 a.m.  My faulty brain knew that, in one minute’s time, the alarm would sound signaling it was time to be operated on.  When I arrived at the hospital, I was ushered to the triage where I was given my identification bracelet, gown, hair cap and socks – lucky me.   photo 3As the neuro-residents came over to check in on me, I waited in anticipation for them to roll me down the long corridor and into the operating room.  I waited, answered another slew of questions about my health history and waited some more.  Finally, in walked my surgeon.  He came over to reassure my family and I of his confidences and to answer any last-minute questions, but also to “mark” me. “The tumor” he said “is in my left frontal lobe.”  He then marked my left ear with an X.  Umm, why did he just mark my ear with a Sharpie?  So in typical Chris fashion, I said “Doc, I think I need my ear, don’t I?”  Everyone got a good, much-needed laugh.

Of course though, because I am Chris Cusano, nothing in my life comes easily or without issue.  Just as I was about to head into the OR, one of the techs came out and apologized as he informed me that the operating table was broken and they were just waiting for the part to fix it.  Again, I just smiled and laughed because at this point, what more can I do?

Finally, word came that the table was fixed and it was time for this monster to come out for once and for all.  I took a minute to say “see you later” and “I love you” to Ashley, my mom and dad and saw the resolve in each of their eyes.  I know they were hurting and scared on the inside, but they showed me true strength and determination as we parted ways.

As I drifted into a deep sleep, I did so with happy thoughts in mind.  I was happily woken up to my name being called and seeing smiling faces looking at me.  At the foot of my bed, there stood my surgeon giving me a thumbs up!  “We got it Chris, you did great!”  Unfortunately, the anesthesia had made me sick and I did not hear anything else that he had to say at the time.  But I felt great otherwise, all things considered.

By the time my family came in, I was alert and oriented.  photo 2Ashley and I had joked prior to the surgery that we both wondered what the tumor looked and felt like.  I had suggested to her that she ask my surgeon if she can see it and touch it.  Not a second after I saw her, I asked “so, was it soft and squishy?”  She instantly got it, laughed and told me I was still there.  My parents and the nurse were not so quick to follow.  Adults!  I have said it all along – a sense of humor and a positive outlook goes a long way.  Despite the fact that Ashley and my parents teased that I looked like a conehead, a smurf and a q-tip, I was in good spirits and knew the prayers had worked.  As I laid in the bed, I looked ahead.  I was eager to move – eager to get out of bed, walk, test my motor skills and resume my life.  To show the world and myself that I had not missed a beat.  I knew I hadn’t.

Today, fourteen days removed from surgery, I find myself thinking about the ladybug again.  After hearing that this operation was needed, my family and I felt as though she did not leave a sign, but was just there for comfort.  Yet, in the days that have passed, I believe that she appeared again to let my family and I know that all would be alright.

There are signs all around us.  Sometimes, we don’t even need to search for them.

Went The Distance Now I’m Back On My Feet, Just A Man And His Will To Survive

As I parted ways with my parents and Ashley, who were escorted to the waiting room, and I was wheeled into the operating room, only one thought came to mind – I will persevere and see you all soon.

But, I was not without emotion.  The operating room is cold and sterile.  The bright lights are reminiscent of a movie scene and the scalpels and doctors’ tools set the scene for a gruesome horror flick.  But then, somehow, there was a feeling of peace and serenity.  As I laid down on the operating table, the nurses and technicians propped my body and moved my limbs where they wanted them.  I heard my surgeon’s voice in the background and then everyone in the room came over to the operating table to run through everyone’s duties for the operation.  And then, with that, the IVs were started and into a deep sleep I went.

However, before writing about my latest triumph, I opted to write a “thank you” dedicated to the following individuals:

First and foremost, my surgeon, Dr. Piepmeier.  I do not have enough time or space to thank you for all that you have done and continue to do for my family and I, but let me say everything is noticed.  The confidence that you carry and the assurances that you provide me have given me such great trust, belief and confidence in you.  Your calming demeanor and persona are what get me through the day when I see you.  As I have said before, ever since I was introduced to you on July 1, 2008, I was confident and knew that I would win this battle because you are my surgeon.  Thank you for everything.

To my nurses at Yale-New Haven Hospital: Tina, Max, Caroline, Maebel and Shanea.  I want to thank each of you for your help and support in nursing me back to health.  And Barb, for getting me out of bed and walking me around the hallways, I thank you.

To the CT Brain Tumor Alliance, thank you for your support, messages and keeping me in your thoughts and prayers.  Connecting with you has been one of the greatest things to happen to me in a long time and am so relieved to know that I have an army of support behind me.  KC, you have welcomed Ashley and I into your family and I am so fortunate that this connection was made.

To Aunt Linda for the never-ending love and support you have shown me.  From the text messages, to the cards and the prayers, I cannot thank you enough.  Your outlook on life and situations is inspiring and I cannot help but to think where I would be without you.  Thank you for believing in me.

And to my extended family and friends who took the time to send me a message of encouragement, support, to let me know your thoughts are with me or just to say hi, thank you.  The love that I feel from you all is incredible and I am grateful beyond words.

To Jackie, Stephen, Wayne and Greyson – you guys are the best.  I don’t know where I’d be without you, but know that I’m still here because of you.  You all keep the fight in me and give me the resolve to carry on and plow forward.  Thank you for all that you do and know that I am forever grateful.

Mom and Dad – I am so happy that you are my parents!  From being with me every step of the way to nursing me back to health and checking on me all day, I appreciate it more than you may ever know.  You have watched me grow into an adult and have seen my best and worst days but never wavered and never pushed me toward anything.  I love you both very much and can only hope that none of us will ever have to go through such a tumultuous situation again.

Finally, to Ashley, my loving, caring wife.  You are amazing and I owe you so much more than I can ever repay you for what you’ve given me the past six years.  When you heard that an operation was necessary, I shared your disappointment and nervous reaction, but you never outwardly showed that to me.  Instead, you stood beside me with your head held high and were prepared to take down this monster with me and for that, I am so grateful.  I love spending every day with you and am hopeful that now, with this behind me, we will have many many more days to celebrate life and enjoy each other every single day.

It’s The Eye of the Tiger, It’s The Thrill Of The Fight

Well, here I go.  Finally, twenty-two days removed from hearing that there has been a regrowth of the tumor and that an operation is necessary, I will be in surgery in less than 48 hours.

While I have a myriad of emotions running through my mind, I am overall in good spirits and feeling extremely optimistic about the operation.  I have the best team of doctors that someone in my position could possibly ask for and would not alter a thing.  I have the BEST family anyone could ever ask for and am surrounded by a wonderful group of friends, coworkers and acquaintances.  Nervous though?  Sure; I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t.  But I have faith.  I have been told that there are a lot of people who are praying for me and I can feel the positive energy.

But there is an additional motivating factor.  This past week, the sports world mourned the death of ESPN anchor, Stuart Scott.  Stuart passed away after a long battle with cancer but showed true strength and perseverance in the way that he fought.  On July 16, 2014, Stuart accepted the Jimmy V Award for Perseverance and gave a speech which resonated with me and millions of other warriors:  “You beat cancer by how you live, why you live, and in the manner in which you live.”  Though I do not have cancer, that statement is spot on.

A brain tumor, or any other disease for that matter, is no different.  From day one of this battle, I have not allowed my tumor to get the best of me.  Rather, I have stayed determined to battle back, punch for punch.  After all, I know that so long as I remain optimistic and stare down this adversity which life continues to throw at me, I will persevere.  The past six years have presented the darkest, most trying and most difficult of days but I will absolutely tell you that my tumor has taught me invaluable lessons about life and the way we should live.  Every day is a miracle and nothing should be taken for granted.

And with that, I’ll enjoy the next day with my head held high, confident that this is the close of this arduous journey in my young life.

Keep those prayers and good vibes coming.

So tumor, as I prepare to bid you good riddance, I do so by borrowing a phrase that Stuart made so popular on SportsCenter:  “Booyah!”

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