Tag Archives: CTBTA

I Wish That I Knew What I Know Now, When I Was Younger

Screen Shot 2016-06-29 at 9.37.10 PMHot dogs, burgers, beer, cookouts, fireworks and independence – all typical thoughts of the 4th of July (there is still no better memory than this photo from last year’s 4th of July getaway to Puerto Rico).  For me, my thoughts this holiday weekend will always be a reminder of my journey and battle.  In the blink of an eye, maybe not for all, my family included, this weekend will mark eight years since it all began.  I still remember it vividly, being wheeled into the OR on July 2, 2008.  Will I see my family again?  Will I remember everyone’s faces?  Will I be able to speak?  The list of questions goes on and on, but I knew it was my only chance of living, so this weekend, I will be rejoicing.  More importantly though, the past eight years have shown me how to live and what truly matters.  There have been many bumps in the road and unexpected twists that I did not foresee, all of which caused me to reexamine my life, my dreams and the ultimate pursuit of happiness, but I am still exploring and figuring it out.

At age 24, I was so focused on my life and pursuing my dreams, all to make as much money as possible.  Before starting law school, right through year one, I was, and still am to the extent I can be, overly ambitious.  Growing up, I saw my parents dedicate their lives to their children.  Whether it was Anheuser-Busch and driving back and forth to New York every day, Eagle Snacks, President of Cape Cod Potato Chips, followed by owning his own company, ShelfSpace Marketing, LLC, while simultaneously serving as the General Manager of Carla’s Pasta, my father was, and still very much is, a hard worker.  My mother is just as incredible, a true inspiration.  She not only raised my siblings and I, but she also taught us values and how to be a good person; she took care of the house and kept it spotless; always had breakfast, lunch and dinner ready – never failed; managed to drive all of us to lessons and appointments.  Remarkably, she did much of this while battling and beating breast cancer and never missing a beat, and is now a para-professional at an elementary school.  They always told my siblings and I: “hard work pays off.”

However, my life changed drastically between the ages of 24 and 32 and I am still waiting for my big break.  Life has been a struggle since my diagnosis – surgeries, extended hospital stays, cognitive rehabilitation, physical rehab, etc.  In addition, and as you know, I have struggled with passing the bar exam.  I still have sky-high medical and student loan bills that I have yet to make even the smallest dent in because I’m not using my JD as I envisioned.

Yet, I am still smiling because all is not lost, not even in the smallest sense.

If this ordeal has taught me anything, it is that life does not go according to plan.  Life throws you curveballs and you have to adjust accordingly.  Sure, I could have packed it in after that semester off and thrown in the towel, but I wanted to prove to myself, and any doubters, that I could excel and earn my degree.  However, what I did not know was that the initial three surgeries would not be the end, as seizures ensued, followed by a shunt revision, gamma knife surgery and one more craniotomy.  But I followed my heart and did what I wanted and have absolutely no regrets about how the past eight years have unfolded.

At 32 years old, I look at my life in quarters – the fourth quarter was pure hell.  It presented me with challenges and hardship, but now, with my renewed lease on life, I am restarting the clock and have an opportunity to explore new avenues and opportunities that perhaps would not have been possible had I gone down the path to being a lawyer.  I have been part of some great conversations of late, some of which are right under my feet.  I intend to continue exploring alternate opportunities with my firm; I just collaborated with the staff at the Yale Brain Tumor Center on content for its new website; I have been working with the Director of Special Events at Yale University on Brainstormin’ and am open to exploring opportunities there.  On the nonprofit side of things, I am the Vice President of the CTBTA and am intrigued by what the future there may hold.  I did not know how much I enjoyed fundraising and development, but it is an area that I truly enjoy, especially for a cause that I am so passionate about.

As I continue to reinvent myself, I get down on myself from time-to-time, due to what I perceive to be, “failures”.  Yet, at the end of the day, I am reminded that I still have all that is important.  As odd as it may sound, I feel blessed to have been dealt this diagnosis, as it made me a better, stronger person and has opened new doors and opportunities for me to pursue.  I am exploring life and doing things I never thought I would do.

On Tuesday, I was interviewed by iHeart Radio and was asked, “How has this experience changed your life?”

To try to answer that concisely was difficult, but as I told the interviewer, these past eight years have been eye-opening, causing me to reexamine how I live my life and taking nothing for granted and never losing hope.  We should all strive to live in the moment and not lose sight of what is important – family, health and friends.

“I wish that I knew what I know now, when I was younger.”

I’m Living My Life Like Its Golden

Being a brain tumor survivor can be lonely and scary for many, but one of the great things that has come out of this ordeal is that it gave me the chance to meet patients and survivors like myself, and to talk with them about their stories.  As I mentioned a few posts back, I wanted to offer up the opportunity for guest posts from some of the people I’ve met along the way.  Amazingly, and as you’ll read, the lyrics from the song we all heard time and time again growing up “it’s  a small world after all” is true.  This entry below is from an incredible survivor and person, Aisha.  

“Letting the joy unfold…it comes naturally.”

When Chris asked that I title my post with the title of a song, naturally I thought of Jill Scott’s “Golden”. Along with “Happy” by Pharell, Golden was often heard from my room in rehab. If you happened to walk by, you’d find me jamming in my wheelchair, basking in the sunlight pouring into my room. The powerful words inspired me to keep hope and my resolve in face of a difficult situation in my life.

My story started off benign from the beginning. No symptoms, no emergency. My tumor, or lesion as it was defined at the time, was an incidental finding on a routine CT scan following a concussion I sustained from a slip on black ice, early one dark winter morning. Months later, after four consultations, surgery was advised and I agreed. I underwent an elective neurosurgical procedure in which my tumor was removed in its entirety; however, a few days later I woke up completely paralyzed on right side. In many ways, it is then that I truly feel my brain tumor journey began. I was admitted to a stroke unit in rehab and remained there for two months after which I was transferred home. I struggled to learn to walk again, write my name, and do simple grooming. There was a time when I was in rehab that I was discouraged from working or even applying, but it remained my goal to work again and by the grace of a higher being, I was able to do so. I am now employed as an assistant academic director/assistant professor of health science for a graduate program. This May, during brain tumor awareness month, I will celebrate my 2nd anniversary since surgery and it will have also been two years of therapy.IMG_6871

In addition to the personal connection I have with Golden, it also connects me with Chris. After my discharge I still had great difficulty with walking and unfortunately was unable to attend a concert featuring Broca’s Area, a CT band in which Chris’ brother is the drummer. They were fundraising for brain tumor awareness and the article was the first time I learned of Chris Cusano, a guy around my age, from my town, and amazingly with the same rare benign brain tumor as me, a central neurocytoma. I didn’t actually meet Chris until several months later at a CTBTA meeting. Shortly after our first meeting, I attended my first CTBTA event, Laughter on the Brain, in Hartford, CT. My attendance that day was truly a blessing as I could not drive yet and my father surprised me at work. He drove me from Bridgeport, CT all the way to Hartford, CT. After I arrived, I remember registering for the event and making my way downstairs where they were serving refreshments and a performance by Broca’s Area was going on. As I was making my way down, I heard a familiar beat playing in the background and found myself grinning ear to ear. It was my song, Golden. I heard a beautiful voice on the mic, a performance Jill Scott herself would approve of. It was Kismet: my unexpected arrival, my first CTBTA event with Chris, and my song was playing. Through Chris, I met his beautiful wife Ashley and the Cusano family. As we stood by the bar listening to the band, I felt gratitude to have recovered enough to be able to hear my song live and to have found a friend in a fellow survivor.

Although I have always considered myself fortunate for having the tremendous support of my family and friends, to have the support and validation of another survivor is priceless. They say “birds of a feather, flock together”, and I feel this is very appropriate for anyone who has suffered from a brain pathology such as a tumor. Through the CTBTA, I have met numerous other brain tumor survivors and recently and more specifically, “benign” brain tumor survivors. Hearing your struggles as they are experienced by another individual provides a sense of validation that is difficult to find with caregivers and clinicians. After all, even I get tired of telling my friends, family, and even coworkers how my shoulder is sore or my leg is angry. Often I’ll joke that my left leg has requested a trial separation as it feels that it picks up too much of the work for the right. With Chris and CTBTA survivors, I could joke and hear their experiences and feel that “aha” moment. I walked away thinking, “yes, they get it”.

So now, I feel honored to be a part of a unique group of individuals who have been impacted by a brain tumor. We may be weathered by the experience but we have not exhausted our resolve. In fact, each of us has in some way decided to share our experience in case our struggle may resonate with someone else. True, the path has at times been difficult, but the memorable associations I have made along the way give me reason to smile and the strength to continue “living my life like its Golden”.

Ain’t No Stoppin’ Us Now

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.

Auld Lang Syne

2015 was a rollercoaster – full of ups and downs.  Off the bat, the year began down at Yale for surgery to remove a recurrence of the beast and ended with champagne and dinner with Ashley.  I was operated on a Thursday and released the following Saturday, a remarkably shorter stay than my first go-around.   photo 1My surgeon and medical staff did another amazing job in caring for me and I will be forever grateful for their support.

However, things greatly improved thereafter.  I returned to work just three weeks removed from my surgery and shocked everyone when I walked through those doors and made an immediate impact in my new role.  Furthermore, I attended my first meeting as a Director of the CT Brain Tumor Alliance and found myself amongst a terrific group of caring and compassionate survivors and caregivers who understood “me”.  As a board member, I had the opportunity to hear from various hospitals, doctors and oncologists about what they are doing in their quest to treat brain tumors and ultimately find the cure and it brought such hope to all of us in the room.  It’s not common that you will find a non-profit Board composed solely of survivors and caregivers, but that is what makes our organization so unique.  Together, with our Executive Director, we held numerous events in the state to raise funds and awareness, notably the Wines of March, Laughter on the Brain, Night of Hope and the Path of Hope.

Yet, with these “ups” came more downs.  As I’ve alluded to in previous posts, the Connecticut brain tumor community lost two wonderfully dedicated individuals who devoted themselves to brain tumor awareness and funding.  They will be forever missed, but our mission has been strengthened by their loss.  For me personally, last year’s Playing for the Cure: Brainstormin’ held so much more of an importance in the wake of those two losses.  And that is why I am so excited about the prospect of an even larger and grander scale event this year – to honor those we have lost, but to continue fighting for the cure to aid those who are still courageously fighting this disease.

My family, friends and I are already looking forward to September 16, 2016 for the third year of Playing for the Cure: Brainstormin’ at the Stony Creek Brewery in Branford, Connecticut.  I will be sure to provide updates as time moves on, so stay tuned!

But where else am I going to go with this blog from here, you ask?  Admittedly, I am at a crossroads.  On one hand, I have used this blog to tell you my story and unfold the past seven years into words.  Recently I received the news of a lifetime at my last MRI and I’ll return to Yale for another scan in May.  I thank you all for being there with me in spirit along the way.  But this is not the end.

I am going to put a new twist on things and offer up the opportunity for some guest bloggers to share their story, as each brain tumor diagnosis is not the same.  Before my diagnosis, I did not know anyone personally who was diagnosed with a brain tumor.  Unfortunately, I now hear about it more frequently than I would hope.  I will start sharing with you the progress and happenings of my alliance with the team at the Yale Brain Tumor Center.  I have been told that their doctors and nurses are all eagerly working toward creating new and exciting web content with me as their liaison, so this is pretty exciting!  Yes, I said exciting – if you had asked me on June 30, 2008 if I thought I’d be excited about brain tumor work, the answer certainly would have been NO.  Ohh, how things can change and how life can throw you into a direction you never expected.  I also hope to take on a greater fundraising role on my own and in conjunction with the CT Brain Tumor Alliance.

I have found my passion and my calling.  My parents always told me that “everything happens for a reason” but I never quite understood why I was dealt this diagnosis.  However, I am certainly a better and stronger person today because of it and have found something that makes me truly happy – I have found my passion.

I look forward to talking with you all in 2016 and hopefully connecting with more people on an individual basis in a greater capacity.  This is a new year and a new opportunity to explore all of our potential.

Empty Chairs At Empty Tables

Despite how well I have been feeling of late, I cannot help feeling guilty.  Yes, I have survivor’s guilt.

2015 has been particularly difficult.  Whether it has been through social media or the evening news, we continue to hear about the tragic stories of those newly diagnosed.  And just during the  past couple of months alone, the Connecticut brain tumor community has lost two courageous warriors.  Through my involvement with the CT Brain Tumor Alliance, I am surrounded by stories of heartbreak and triumph.  Recently, I told you about Martin and Candice, two individuals who I had met through my involvement with this organization and I am proud to say that I live a better life because of the two of them.   With a smile always on their face, they never allowed their diagnosis to bring them down.  Unfortunately, both lost their battles to their horrific disease.  Yet, I am still here.

I wish life were different.  The questions haunt me: why does someone with a benign tumor like the one I had, have such a different recovery and prognosis than I?  Why was my tumor benign while another person’s was cancerous?  I wish I had answers to these questions and as to why I am okay compared to others.  However, these are questions which nobody can, or ever will, be able to answer.  My pain and sadness for the victims and their loved ones makes me want to fight harder for them.  I often remind myself how lucky I am, but it does not take away the somber reminder of those who are less fortunate.  I am attempting to turn my tragedy into a positive.  If nothing else, it has allowed me to gain an entirely new perspective on life and what is truly important.

My role as a Director of the CTBTA becomes that much more important to me and I feel the pride when the Board goes to the various hospitals and research centers to present checks.  These monies are used to better assist research and treatments; to allow children to get into MRI machines without being scared; and providing for patient-assistance funds.  The opportunities that the hospitals are to present from our hard work brings a smile to my face, providing reassurances that I am taking part in a greater change for something good.

Nonetheless, I am quite certain that I will always be haunted by survivor’s guilt.  Saying goodbye to an acquaintance with this diagnosis will get harder and harder.   However, I believe that the best way to honor those who have passed from this disease is to continue fighting in their honor.  To try to bring something good out of this experience.  So when I hear about someone with a more difficult prognosis than myself, I will always be reminded by a sense of gratitude from my recovery and how far I have come to fight on in the memory of those who have passed.

There Is A Light That Never Goes Out

The brain tumor community lost another warrior last week, Martin Syndomin.  I will always remember my first CTBTA walk meeting last year.  Along with Directors, volunteers, Ashley and I, there was Martin – I felt an immediate connection with him.  He was a young brain tumor survivor who worked in finance in New York City, but his passion was volunteering for the Connecticut Brain Tumor Alliance.  With the first ever Path of Hope last year, he was instrumental in assisting with the financials, registration site and site visits, among others.  But what stood out to me was his passion for just being there and lending an ear to myself and other new volunteers.  I remember him giving my wife and I the biggest hug after that first meeting – the most genuine and sincere “It’s so nice to meet you” I’ve ever experienced.  Martin, you will be sorely missed but your fight will carry on.  I can promise you that I will continue my pledge to help find the cure and develop new treatments in the fight against this terrible disease.

When we suffer the loss of someone, we often express our grief by saying our “hearts are heavy”.   It’s certainly an accurate description, however after Martin’s loss, I felt a little differently.  My heart is heavy, but it’s full.  Full of realization and fight.  Full of renewed energy to live a life others so valiantly lost.

There is a lot of current promise out there to make me feel like this is not some lofty, far-fetched hope.  I look at the work of the CTBTA; I look at the National Brain Tumor Society and the American Brain Tumor Association; I look at the work and promising research being conducted at the hospitals around Connecticut.  Great things are happening and it should leave brain tumor and brain cancer patients feeling hopeful.  Together, this all makes me believe that finding the cure is certainly within reach in the not too distant future.

And while as a community we are working to reach this goal, there is something we can all do a little better.  Appreciate.  Enjoy.  Smile.  Laugh.  Of course it’s not all perfect.  So when life hurts, cry.  Cry the ugly cry if you have to.  Don’t hold back on anything.

There’s no judge or jury needed.  I’m often guilty of zeroing in on nonsense, guilty of not truly living.

So, for me, for Martin, for everyone, I ask one thing.

Experience.

April Showers Bring May Flowers

I know I’m a few days late, but it’s May and May is Brain Tumor Awareness Month!  For the patients, survivors, caregivers, friends and families, this is our month to be heard, raise awareness and bring a much needed voice to the brain tumor community.

There are some great campaigns taking place during the month and lots of awesome people who are dedicated to raising awareness.  Maybe you’ve heard of various sporting teams wearing “grey” uniforms to show their pride, or perhaps have been involved in or seen flyers for walks being held this month?  These are both wonderful opportunities for the much deserved and appreciated recognition.  I’ve also seen friends on social media posting pictures of themselves in a different grey outfit each day – very cool!  It’s these simple things that bring a smile to my face to know that this cause is so well cared for and there are many individuals and businesses out there trying to make a difference.  Even my dog got in on the party showing off his #beaniesforbraincancer! IMG_1629

All of this got me thinking – what can I do to show my pride and make a statement?  And then it came to me.

As I was sitting in the chair getting my haircut with my barber doing his final touches, I told him it looked good, but asked him if he would buzz the top too.  “Are you sure?” he asked.  I replied, “yes, I’m positive.  It’s brain tumor awareness month and this is my way of showing pride and support.”  As he began buzzing it, a voice piped up from another shaved-head person: “Sorry, but why did you decide to buzz it after getting rid of the old style?”  I explained to him, and the rest of people waiting for the barber that May is brain tumor awareness month and as a survivor, I wanted to do something to show my pride and support.  Looking in the mirror, I saw nods of approval and smiles, and then I was asked whether I would consider one of the barber’s already-shaved head as support of my effort.  I have no shame and I’m not embarrassed to show the world my scars – my battle wounds.  DSC_0402Fortunately, losing my hair is one thing I’ll likely never have to worry about – thanks Mom.

So what are you willing to do for the rest of this month to show your support?  You can wear the grey CTBTA bracelet or purchase Broca’s Area CD to help raise money for the CTBTA.  There are so many ways to get involved and help out, many of which would not require you to leave your couch.  Come on and join the party, you know you want to!