The Big ‘C’.
We hear about it all the time filling the airwaves, social media and conversation. You’d be hard pressed to say that there’s anyone out there whose life hasn’t been touched by it. My own family has been affected by cancer – as I mentioned before on this blog, my mother is a breast cancer survivor and the strongest woman who I have ever met – she even managed to raise me!
When I received my brain tumor diagnosis, the one blessing bestowed upon me was that the doctors thought it was likely benign. A malignant tumor would have presented so many more challenges than I was already facing.
Just as with any type of cancer, brain cancer is awful. There’s no denying that fact. I thought maybe it was just me, but it seems to be a common thread among benign brain tumor patients to feel a sense of guilt in opening up about their struggles due to our benign status. Trust me, we are grateful and while we do consider it a stroke of great luck to not have encountered the big ‘C’ in our journeys, our benign tumors have presented us with unique challenges which we will deal with for the rest of our lives.
This past Saturday, I met up with three truly remarkable, inspirational people from right here in Connecticut who have gone down the same path I have – Rob, Aisha and Julia. All three were diagnosed with benign brain tumors. As we sat around the table for coffee, sharing our stories, I felt the connection of togetherness and pride in that while we may each have undergone a traumatic experience, we are still here and able to share our stories. The scars on our heads cannot take away our ability to live and sometimes even important, to laugh.
This meeting was something I had wanted to do for a while, to reach out and talk with others in the same situation like I am. Now, I do not want to take anything away from anyone with brain cancer, or any other form of cancer – I hate the thought of it. But hear me out.
Being diagnosed with a benign brain tumor and having it removed is not the end of the struggles, unfortunately. If you been following my story, you know my continued struggles and the additional surgeries and procedures that were needed. However, I am very fortunate in the grand scheme of things – something which I have known for quite some time, but which I sometimes forget to appreciate. The four of us each had to fight to regain our livelihoods, which included intensive rehabilitation and requiring us to put our lives on hold.
Pre-brain tumor, Rob created a very successful life for himself. He spent years in the music industry, working as the tour agent for musicians including Britney Spears, the Backstreet Boys, Justin Timberlake, Mary J. Blige and most recently, the Jonas Brothers. Unfortunately though, in November 2012, Rob’s life changed forever when he was diagnosed with a brain tumor on his brain stem and spent nearly 200 consecutive days in various hospitals. During that time, he underwent 9 surgeries and countless hours of rehab. He developed hydrocephalus and now lives with a shunt. He still experiences double vision and is restricted to driving during the day. However, Rob is full of hope and is an inspiration to me and everyone around him. I have been in Rob’s company on several occasions now, and despite his challenges, not once have I heard him complain about his life or feel sorrow for himself. His doctors will continue to monitor the remaining tumor that is left on his brain stem and his hydrocephalus is under control with the shunt.
Aisha, whom I’ve previously mentioned on this blog, was diagnosed with the same type of tumor as me – a central neurocytoma. Ironically enough, she grew up and lives in North Haven, CT, the same town that I grew up in and come to find out, in very close proximity to where I used to live. Like me, she was treated at Yale-New Haven Hospital and her prognosis is good. Aisha is a spirited and hysterical individual with a tremendous outlook. She shared a story with us of how she applied for a teaching job at the University of Bridgeport and was called for an interview while in the hospital. Determined, she asked if she could interview via Skype. While she did not Skype with them, she did end up going for an interview five months later when she was home and recovered, and was the successful candidate for the search. Despite her fortunes, Aisha is left with paralysis on her right side, requiring a cane to enable her to walk. There’s no stopping her though – she doesn’t let her challenges bring her down. She truly lights up any room with her positivity.
Julia reached out to the CTBTA seeking to volunteer and help our organization – not to mention, she is full of wonderful ideas! A phenomenal personality and pleasure to meet with, I knew she was committed to this cause from the moment we exchanged our hellos. Before her diagnosis, Julia was experiencing headaches and loss of smell, which she believed to be a sinus issue. Unfortunately, she was diagnosed with a meningioma and underwent a craniotomy and then again surgery for a CSF leak and infection she developed. Julia has since lost her sense of smell and can only taste certain things, but certainly has not lost her sense of humor! During our meeting, she asked the rest of the group about our screws. Yes, screws. Julia pointed to a spot at the top of her forehead and another one above her right eye where the doctors inserted screws to place her skull back in. When I reached out for her consent to share her story with you, she referred to herself as “part bride of Frankenstein, nuts and bolts and all!” Despite her sense of humor however, she expressed frustrations with her memory and fears of neuropsych testing, all while waiting for a decision on her disability. Yet, in the eyes of a seven-year survivor, for someone who is only seven months out, I think she’s doing remarkably well!
I think the four of us would all agree that joining together and sharing our stories – the pain, the struggles, and believe it or not, the belly-hurting laughs, was a great experience. There’s just something about the camaraderie felt between those sharing similar experiences that is therapeutic.
So yes, while a cancerous tumor certainly is not the same as a benign tumor, tumors are tumors and they each present their challenges and obstacles. It is my hope, at least, that together we will bring all brain tumors to the forefront – both cancerous and benign.
Because after all, grey matters.