My glioblastoma story began on Dec. 28, 2014, when I was scheduled for my annual physical. I’d lost my dad quite suddenly to cancer eight years earlier and was acutely aware of the importance of a routine physical. When my primary care physician asked how I was doing, I told him I was well, with the exception of the terrible headache I’d had the previous day. He suggested a CT scan, and I didn’t think it was a big deal. Little did I know, I had a brain tumor the size of an avocado. I had very few symptoms other than that horrible headache. I quickly had my first MRI, which became one of many.
My wife, twin daughters and I flew to MD Anderson on Jan. 1, 2015, and our journey began.
She replied candidly, “Yes, but this is a really big tumor, and surgery is your only option. Brain tumor surgery is all I do all day, every day.”
With her calm confidence, we knew we were at the right place. Soon, Dr. Ferguson performed a 10-hour craniotomy in MD Anderson’s Brainsuite®, a special neurosurgical operating room with intraoperative MRI. She removed 98% of the tumor – while she was very pregnant, I might add! I walked into the hospital with a brain tumor, and walked out three days later tumor-free. (And I did proudly walk out, despite the nurses urging me to leave in a wheelchair.)
Choosing to stay positive
The pathology report revealed that the tumor was glioblastoma, grade IV. Although I have a Ph.D. in reproductive physiology and was an NIH postdoctoral fellow, I knew nothing about glioblastoma. As a scientist, I naturally got busy with my research and quickly learned that glioblastoma wasn’t good.
At that moment I made the second-best decision since choosing to go to MD Anderson: I decided that all I had control over was my attitude. I consciously promised myself that no matter how bad glioblastoma was, I would remain positive and rely on my faith, my family and my team at MD Anderson.
Soon thereafter, we met with John de Groot, M.D., and his clinical nurse, Jennifer Johnson. I am fairly sure they will never forget that first meeting with me post-op. I matter-of-factly informed them that I intended to be an outlier and that I intended to live long enough for them to discover a cure. Again, staying positive was – and is – my only option. It is not always easy.
As a husband and father, I do worry about my family, but I also realize that it is my job to fight and do all I can to win the battle.
Make every day a good day
After my glioblastoma diagnosis, a mentor reminded me that nothing really changed: I never knew how long I was going to live and I still don’t. Another mentor said, “Congratulations, you have lived long enough to take advantage of the best in modern medicine,” which I have done.
My wife and I stayed in Houston where I underwent six weeks of radiation treatment, and I just recently finished my 12th cycle of chemotherapy. To date, all scans have been clear.
I was never promised how or when I would depart this world, but every day I do have the choice to make it a good day.
Since this journey began, I have been promoted to Dean of the College of Agriculture and Natural Sciences at West Texas A&M University. My twin daughters also graduated from high school and will begin college in August.
I do feel down occasionally, but I have more good days than bad. As I like to say, game on glio, game on!
Dean Hawkins with his family
Every day I have the choice to make it a good day.