How a Tumor Saved My Life

I come from a long line of strong women. My mother’s mother taught me how to hold a shovel, my father’s mother taught me how to hold a cigarette. But no one taught me how to hold the news that I have a rare, aggressive tumor squeezing my brain stem. “First, you’ll lose your voice. Then your ability to breathe,” said the neurosurgeon in the same matter-of-fact tone that a waiter might have said, “First your salad will arrive. Then you’ll get your steak.”

At 45 years old, I was married, a mother of two, and up until this moment, medically “boring.” No health or genetic history of any kind. Previous conditions: none. Previous surgeries: wisdom teeth removal. I was a runner and a health nut. I competed in ultra-marathons and often won my age group.

“We can’t know what kind of tumor this is for sure until we get a piece of it, but it’s aggressive. It has wrapped itself like a boa constrictor around your brainstem. The brainstem controls your heart, your lungs, everything you need to survive.” At this point, the neurosurgeon took a plastic model of a skull down from his shelf and pointed at different waxy yellow bones and purple plastic arteries. I could recognize that he was holding a replica of a human skull, but I had no idea what he was saying. My mind drifted to my heart; was it beating? Then to my lungs; could I still take a breath?

“The tumor has engulfed every major artery, nerve, and ligament moving from your brain down your spine. It’s pierced the dura into your brain which means it can grow and spread to more advanced brain functions as well. It’s hard to tell, but it also looks like it has eaten the bones at the top of your spine, including the tip of the odontoid process, the peg that holds your head on your neck.” He lifted his glasses off his nose to look at me. I just stared at the skull in his hands.

“Are you saying that the only thing holding my head on my body right now is this tumor?”


“Can you remove it without damaging the brainstem or knocking my head off?”

“It will require two, maybe three operations to remove what we can of the tumor. There are, of course, serious risks, “ The neurosurgeon said and put the skull back on the shelf. He looked at us with an apologetic expression.

“What kind of risks?” My husband Kurt asked.

“Death. Paralysis. Brain deficits. Inability to eat or breathe on her own,” he listed.

“And what if we don’t operate?” I asked.

“I give you three, maybe five months to live.” I looked at the surgeon’s face, but there was no sign that he was joking. Kurt put his notebook down and gently reached for my hand.

“Will I just drop dead walking down the street?”

“If you’re lucky,” the surgeon said.

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