People Profile: Patient Learns to Be Here, Now
Network - Winter 2007
When people look at me, they can’t believe I had a brain tumor three years ago. At the time I was diagnosed, I was 47 years old and shocked. How could a seemingly healthy person my age get brain cancer?
It was June 2003, and I’d been having terrible headaches for weeks. Then, one evening, I was dressed and ready to go to the opera with a friend when a headache came on that was so intense I couldn’t drive or even get up. The next morning, Michael, my husband of 26 years, insisted we go to a hospital emergency room.
A CT scan showed that I had a mass in my brain. Three days later, a neurosurgeon removed the main tumor but said that other small ones remained.
When I experienced unbelievable pain in my back after the surgery, an MRI revealed the cancer had progressed throughout my spine. So I transferred to
M. D. Anderson where I was diagnosed with medulloblastoma and underwent radiation of my brain and spine, then chemotherapy.
Throughout the long months of treatments, my husband received help from friends, co-workers and former co-workers by creating an e-mail network that broadcast updates on my illness. He also was specific in enlisting their help: drivers for the countless radiation appointments, chemotherapy treatments and blood tests; food for a family that had relied on me; and people who could organize the driving and food schedules.
Though I was in bad shape, it was wonderful to catch up with old friends and get to know some of my husband’s friends during rides to the hospital. And the bounty of food people sent reflected the diversity of Houston.
Through it all, my husband kept up with his full-time job, our two daughters and all their activities, and my illness. Though he didn’t drive me to every hospital appointment, he accompanied me to important meetings with my doctors. He also cleaned my central venous catheter line (used to administer chemotherapy) every night and gave me shots at home. Members of my family from Pennsylvania also flew in to help.
My husband tells me that I slept away half a year when my pain required heavy doses of medication. I feel like Rip Van Winkle, but I did manage to get a photo of everybody that came to our house, sent thank-you notes to early gift givers until my hands shook too much from drugs, and have photos of the many flowers and plants 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.
Through volunteer work, I’m trying to help other cancer patients, and I’ve rediscovered a love of art that I’d abandoned during college. Right now, I’m doing “Chinese watercolor” with a woman who came to the United States seven years ago from China. I’m taking watercolor at the Glassell’s art school, making jewelry and created a stained glass panel during a weekend workshop. I’m also enjoying exercise again.
I’ll never know what I missed of my two daughters during those months I was just trying to survive. But it is great to be with them now: to hear Rachel play the piano or see her latest movie production; to listen to Michelle play the harp or watch her at soccer; to just laugh with them about something on TV. I hope I get to see them graduate from high school, then college, get married, have children. I hope I’ll have a chance to grow old with my husband. 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.