On Friday, April 16, 2021, I went into an MRI appointment at 5:00 pm in Worcester, Massachusetts, to see if we could figure out why I had recently been having some increased headache pain and to identify if it was perhaps due to a blood clot from having received the J&J vaccine.
I left in an ambulance, diagnosed with a six-centimeter-large brain tumor.
Brain cancer is unlike any other kind of cancer I’ve experienced, and there has been a fair amount of cancer in my world. Unlike breast cancer, you don’t aim for a “clean margin” with a brain tumor, since that would mean that you would have removed all the cancer and had taken parts of the brain with it, as the tumor grows into the brain itself. It also means that I can’t approach my cancer care from an “anti-tumor, kill the tumor” approach, as the tumor is integrated into the brain. I’m fond of my brain, quite fond of it actually, so I have no struggle letting go of a “kill” approach and looking for integration instead.
The skull and brain do not feel pain. This, too, turns the brain cancer experience on its head, if you’ll excuse the pun, because one feels like “wow, brain surgery is a GIANT endeavor and it should hurt proportionally,” and yet….there is no pain associated with the actual surgery itself. The scalp feels pain and is happy to announce that you just cut a strip of it, so that’s a different story, but the brain itself does not associate pain with this insane undertaking.
In fact, if you are like me, having your brain exfoliated might be the most amazing gift you’ve been given in a long time. For me, having the pressure of the tumor and inflammation relieved meant I no longer had the newest visual interferences flickering across my eyeballs, that I could start to get my words back, that I could at least identify when my numbers were getting slippery and start to plan a fix for that. There has been no fear, just an immense relief and gratitude. For the past 3-5 years, and increasingly so recently, words had been disappearing for me. I would flip through a deck of words in my head, desperately fitting them into my sentence until they clicked in or until I gave up and reframed the sentence, always hoping no one noticed. I also now can see that all the missed text messages and number reversals were due to disappearing number connections in my brain. The thing is, as you know if read this blog at all, I am a teacher. A math teacher (for 18 years), a blog writer (for four years), a daily user of words and numbers to understand who I am as a human being.
So losing my words and losing my numbers has been a spiritual and psychological death, a slow, painful descent into serious self-doubt and loss. Learning that there was a reason (large tumor) and a set of action steps (surgery and therapy beyond that) is a gift of grace for which I can only be grateful without end.