Brain Food for Thought

It’s often the challenges we face in life that push us forward. Imagine for a second that you find out some really bad news about your health. It’s not about your parent or your best friend. It’s your body; the kind of diagnosis that has a direct connection to your mortality. How would you react?

This is where my story begins. In December of 2001 I was diagnosed with a brain tumor on the left parietal lobe. In other words, I had a mass of cells about the size of a dime camping out directly on top of the left side of my brain.

My journey to this diagnosis was long and painful. The first clue was the headaches, which I’d been having daily for over a year. I like to refer to this as my Homer Simpson moment. In retrospect, having daily headaches for over a year should have signaled a warning sign loud and clear. But it began when I was a young, stressed, sleep-deprived college freshman. I had just moved from my sheltered Iowa town of 200 people to the mother ship of New York City. Literally everything was new to me, and after a while, the headaches became routine. They weren’t debilitating, just a dull pain that I eventually ignored.

As I entered my sophomore year at NYU, the headaches got a little worse, and I started missing class. I made an appointment to obtain the obligatory doctor’s note, which marks the beginning of my trip down the rabbit hole. From September to December of 2001, my life was a daily experiment in pain management and testing. The initial medicine I was prescribed was so harsh it eroded my stomach, which took my health problems on an unwelcomed tangent. I was prescribed everything from arthritis medication to sleep aids. Every other day was a new blood test making my veins so difficult and my arms so bruised that the doctors resorted to drawing it from the tops of my feet. Yet none of this stopped the headaches.

This all took place with September 11th as the backdrop. The world – my world – was a hurricane. Finally, during the last few days of my winter holiday, a CAT scan and an MRI were ordered.

When my family and I returned home from the hospital, there was already a message from the doctor. My mom dialed while my grandma and I sat watching. Even to this day the 10 minutes that followed seem surreal. My mom, who at this point had had her own 10 year battle with cancer, wasn’t even on the phone for 30 seconds when she started crying. Nothing had been said out loud, that was our only signal. It’s a bizarre way to find out something serious is happening to you.

I didn’t freak out. My first thought was concern that I’d have to take time off school and wouldn’t graduate with my friends. Was I scared? Not. One. Single. Bit. It didn’t feel real. This was happening, but it wasn’t happening to me. I was an overachiever. I was going places. I was invincible! And in an odd way, the whole thing was kind of cool. But maybe that was just my obsession with scary movies talking.

I met with a neurosurgeon and a neurologist the next day in Kansas City. I was told that the surgery could wait until summer as long as I came back during spring break for a check up. That semester was tough. The headaches were intense, and I began to experience focal seizures. But I got through it, all while maintaining good grades and a part time job.

Iowa welcomed me home that May with arms as wide open as they can go. Even with health insurance, my medical bills were insurmountable. Pretty much the entire southwestern part of the state and even communities in Missouri banded together to execute an honorary auction and dinner. It’s simply impossible to try to put that kind of support into words. I’m overwhelmed just thinking about it.

On May 23, 2002 in Kansas City, I underwent brain surgery to remove the pesky tumor that was causing me all this trouble. The surgery was more difficult than expected because some of the cells were wrapped around a blood vessel. Those microscopic pieces of the tumor were too risky to remove, so they will be with me forever. The months that followed were some of the worst of my life. My head was shaved, I’d lost the function of the right side of my body due to the nature of the surgery, and the massive amount of prescriptions I’d been taking did major damage to my body.

Thankfully, my tumor was benign. I returned to college in August, landed a dream public relations job, and got accepted to NYU’s study abroad program for the spring. My life started to return to normal, and my hair finally started to grow out. The more time that passed, the more I just moved on.

Looking back on it now, it amazes me that I went through it all with so few worries. I think my limited life experience played a large role in that, and although I hope to have many more years to go, I imagine that my reaction would be a bit different today. I have a different appreciation for the fragility of life. It would be a lie to say I’m inspired to live each day to its fullest. I don’t think it’s realistic to be a constant beacon of positivity (well, unless you’re my mother), but I do feel like my experience is a gift. I know what I’m capable of, and I always have something to motivate me. Plus, how many people are able to say that they have three metal disks holding their skull together?

It is so easy to feel empathy and offer support (and sometimes solutions) when we see our family and friends going through something difficult. However, it’s a metaphysical conundrum to try to make sense of the things happening to you. It doesn’t have to be a brain tumor. It can be as simple as wondering how we got to the place we are now. Why am I living in New York? Why am I sitting at this desk? You can freak out or get pissed off. But perhaps the nugget of wisdom is to realize that you’re still here. Whatever life has thrown your way, you’re still in the game. All you have to do is continue to play!

Our experiences make us unique, yet they have a funny way of bringing us together. But no matter what, we are always learning.

Posted by: Tonya Fleetwood, Senior Account Executive