Debra, a wife and mother, artist and cancer volunteer is the survivor of a medulloblastoma. She shares her experiences from diagnosis through treatment and beyond.
Yes, I am a brain cancer survivor. I’ve been in remission since March 2004. When people look at me they can’t believe I had a tumor in my brain three years ago. At the time I was diagnosed, I was 47 years old and shocked I had a brain tumor. How could a seemingly healthy person my age get brain cancer? It was June 2003 and I’d been having terrible headaches for weeks. Much worse than the migraines I sometimes had.
On a Thursday night in June I was dressed and ready to go to the opera with a friend. I wanted to go but a headache came on that was so intense I felt nauseated. I couldn’t drive or even get up. The next morning my husband Michael insisted we go to a hospital emergency room. I wouldn’t be here but for the help of my husband of 26 years.
In the emergency room a CAT scan showed that I had a mass in my brain. We were in shock. I was soon checked into a high care room and given steroids. Three days later my neurosurgeon removed the main tumor but said that other very small ones remained.
After brain surgery I experienced pain in my spine. They did an MRI that showed the cancer had progressed throughout my spine. The first hospital suggested I transfer to a hospital specializing in cancer. After going to the second hospital, I was diagnosed with medulloblastoma. There I underwent radiation of my brain and spine, then chemotherapy.
We don’t have any family who live within driving distance. Throughout the long months of treatments, my husband got an amazing outpouring of help from friends, co-workers & former co-workers by creating an email network that broadcast updates on my illness. He decided to do this after so many calls asking, “What can I do to help?” He was specific in enlisting their help: a schedule that needed drivers for the countless radiation appointments, chemotherapy treatments and blood tests; food for a family that had relied on me for meal preparation; people that could organize the driving and food schedules.
Though I was in bad shape throughout that year, it was wonderful to reconnect with people I hadn’t seen in years. In car rides to the hospital, I caught up with old friends. The bounty of food people sent reflected the diversity of where we live. I can’t vouch for most of the food, as I was too sick from chemotherapy to enjoy what I’m sure was good eating.
Through it all, my husband kept up with his full time job, with our two daughters and all their activities, and with my illness. Though he didn’t drive me to every hospital appointment, he accompanied me at important meetings with my doctors. He ended up cleaning my CVC line (used to administer chemo drugs) every night and giving me shots at home. I’m sure he was stretched to the limit but I thank God he was there.
While I was sick, I received so many cards and gifts from friends and family around the globe. I got notes and calls from lots of people, some I didn’t even know, saying they were praying for me. They were rays of sunshine when things got tough. My older sister and mother flew in to see me just as I was beginning my treatments in July 2003. There’s nothing like having your mom take care of you. My sister’s daughter invited my two kids to her home in late July 2003 so they could spend a week with her three children of similar ages and other family members. She then flew back with them and stayed with me for 5 days. My sister returned in March 2004 so my husband could take my two daughters skiing during spring break. I now feel closer to my sister than I have in many years. She and her husband came to visit again in March 2006, but this time we had fun doing things together. I also feel an even deeper love for my husband.
My husband tells me that I slept away about half a year as a result of pain medication, often forgetting who had come to visit. I felt like Rip van Winkle. I did manage to get a photo of virtually everybody that came to our house and sent thank you notes to early gift givers. I also have photos of the many flowers and plants that I received. My husband also tells me that my innate cheerfulness and sense of humor often had the hospital staff smiling and laughing. Maybe a positive attitude helped me along my cancer journey? I smile a lot these days because I’m just happy to be alive.
I’m trying to help other cancer patients with volunteer work I’ve been doing. I also rediscovered my love of art that I’d abandoned during college. After working all my life, I stopped working when I was diagnosed with cancer. Though I loved my 24-year career and the wonderful experiences I’d had, I always wondered if I should have pursued another path towards being an artist. So I’m painting watercolors and doing “Chinese watercolor” with a woman who came to the US 7 years ago from China. And I’m drawing and making jewelry. I made a stained glass panel while taking a weekend workshop. I’m also enjoying exercise again, lifting weights, going to hour-long “spinning” classes and riding a stationary bicycle.
Let’s not forget about my two beautiful daughters. I’ll never know what I missed those months I was just trying to survive. But it sure is great to be with them now, hearing them play their musical instruments or watching them in their various activities and sports, or just laughing with them about something on TV or about what someone said. I hope I get to see them graduate from high school, then college, then see them get married and have children. I hope I’ll have a chance to grow old with my husband Michael. But as he says now that he’s taken up meditation, “Be Here Now.”
Cancer is a harrowing experience, but it enables you to appreciate the important things in life your family, your friends, your health. And TODAY.