I knew it couldn't be good news when my doctor called at 7 a.m. to discuss my scans from the night before. My melanoma had spread, she told me. I had three new tumors in my brain and needed radiation.
I met with the radiologist and neurosurgeon the following week. They recommended gamma knife surgery. The procedure is more like radiation than surgery. Unlike radiation therapy -- which uses several treatments -- gamma knife surgery targets a specific area in just one treatment.
To be honest, gamma knife surgery was one of the more difficult things I've dealt with since beginning melanoma treatment. The process was uncomfortable and triggered some anxiety, an emotion I hadn't experienced much of up until this point. But with a sense of humor and meditation, I was able to cope.
Getting fitted with a halo for gamma knife surgery
From a video I watched at MD Anderson, I learned the procedure would include having a halo placed over my head and neck. Then, I would be put into a machine, similar those used during an MRI, for the gamma knife surgery.
This is not something I'd ever expected when I received my melanoma diagnosis. I thought a halo was for injured hockey players or extreme sports athletes. Not me. Not skin cancer.
I wasn't thrilled, but I came prepared with my blissful rose-colored glasses, a sense of humor and some battery operated lights and garland. (I'm not kidding about that last part.)
While gamma knife surgery is a radiation procedure, a neurosurgeon actually placed the halo. Using a local anesthetic, they numbed a spots on my head, then placed the halo and screwed it in. It felt similar to having my braces tightened -- tight and painful.
Getting the halo fitted didn't take long, but trying to walk or move with the extra weight over my head was very difficult. I had to be wheeled most places, which I really hate. The bar across my mouth made it very difficult to eat. I finally mastered using a straw, but not without sending my husband into hysterics. Don't worry, he's completely recovered.
Undergoing gamma knife surgery
Once the halo was attached, I had an MRI. I started to get a headache, but my care team gave me some medication. Then, to bring some fun to something I was dreading, I decorated my halo with lights and garland. It was a huge success. As I was wheeled into the treatment room, I was greeted with funny looks and high-fives from nurses, doctors and other patients.
Because I had so many tiny tumors, the actual procedure took two-and-a-half hours. The entire treatment team was very nice and helpful. They wheeled me into the treatment area and asked me what music I like. They played some Ella Fitzgerald and went to work as I was placed on a bed and moved forward under the radiation machine.
I mostly slept during the gamma knife surgery. But when I woke up, I began to feel anxious. I had never had problems with any scans, but this took much longer. As I began to panic, I remembered to breathe slowly and use some tips I'd learned through yoga and meditation.
After the procedure, I was wheeled back to my room and prepared to have the halo removed. As they began to remove it, my heart started racing again.
By focusing on my breathing and using positive visualization, I was able to get back to my center.
My best advice to anyone beginning cancer treatment is to learn how to meditate. It helped me deal with these new and unexpected experiences.
Recovering after gamma knife surgery
I continued to have nightmares and insomnia in the days after the gamma knife surgery, but I kept using meditation and positive visualization to help keep myself calm.
Through gamma knife surgery -- just like my melanoma diagnosis in general -- I've learned I can handle more than I thought I could. I've seen how far I can push myself. Best of all, I've learned how to become my own superhero.