By Andrea Garramone
Andrea Garramone lives in Dallas and was diagnosed with an anaplastic astrocytoma, a type of brain tumor, in 2009 at age 28 and shortly after getting married. Now in remission, she credits MD Anderson for her survival and blogs about her cancer experience at www.tumorrific.blogspot.com.
In 2009, neurosurgeon Dr. Frederick Lang saved my life.
It all started when I began having horrible headaches. My primary doctor initially dismissed my concerns, telling me I was a hypochondriac. Yet, my gut was telling me something was seriously wrong, so I switched doctors.
Even then, I had to see my new doctor multiple times, as my symptoms -- vomiting and headaches -- went from bad to worse, before I finally convinced him that I needed an MRI.
Finding the right surgeon
When the MRI came back abnormal, I knew my gut had been right. There was a large mass in my brain.
I shuffled from seeing a neurologist to a neurosurgeon and then a neuro-oncologist in Dallas, where I had a biopsy. The neurosurgeon told me unequivocally that my mass was non-cancerous, but was in a very bad spot, sitting right on top of my motor cortex.
Only one neurosurgeon in the Dallas area was willing, rather reluctantly, to perform surgery.
As a young newlywed, I had no clue what to do, but I knew I had to fight. My family insisted that we shop around for a second opinion and even demanded a second reading of my scans from a neuropathologist in New York. The second reading showed something different: cancer.
I was in a state of shock, but my family and I were not willing to settle for a bad outcome. My symptoms were progressing rapidly and I started having seizures. We decided to see a neurosurgeon at the University of Alabama; he referred us to Dr. Lang at MD Anderson.
I knew I was in the best hands possible when Dr. Lang looked at my scans -- the tumor had grown 50% in a month -- and told me he wanted to perform an awake craniotomy ASAP. MD Anderson even flew in an anesthesiologist for my surgery.
I was scared, as any sane person would be, but with the support of my family I went through the preparations. A priest came to see me and prayed with me, helping me feel a little more secure. I knew I had to trust in God to guide the surgeon's hands. Dr. Lang warned us that I may lose the ability to walk and speak for at least three months.
During the surgery I was cracking all the clean jokes I had memorized for the occasion of digging out my tumor, "Snarla."
Dr. Lang completely removed Snarla, which was a grapefruit-sized stage III anaplastic astrocytoma. This feat left me, temporarily, unable to walk or talk. However, I'm extremely stubborn and was intensely determined to make my body function the way I wanted it to. I attempted to walk within a week. I could only say a few sparse words, but my speech pathways were, miraculously, completely intact.
Had any other neurosurgeon performed my surgery, I'm certain I would have lasting, lifelong damage. Even the nurses admired Dr. Lang's skillful stapling of the incision on my head, and now I don't have a scar to show for it.
Recovery: Painting and dancing
When I was released from the hospital, my cancer journey wasn't over. I returned home to Dallas to begin speech, occupational and physical therapy. I also had six weeks of radiation and one year of oral chemotherapy.
During this time, I mostly had an irritatingly positive attitude, but there were times of frustration and immense rage. I needed an outlet, so I started painting. As my movements and functions came back, I started dancing, which shocked my doctors.
I am now in remission, but it was a long, hard journey with many tears shed. Through it all, I decided to stop throwing pity parties -- only one person shows up and there are no refreshments.
With a positive attitude and support (my husband was my rock), you will get through this.
MD Anderson cares a great deal about their patients and the families; from the doctors and nurses to the receptionist and parking attendants, they are devoted to making you better.
As a very wise woman once told me, "YOU CAN DO IT and even when you think you can't, remember, you are strong and you can."