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May 24th, 2017
I was psuedo-hiding in the bathroom stall of a restaurant I worked at during a busy dinner shift when another server called my name. "Someone's on the phone for you at the front. It's an emergency." I threw my cell in my apron and jumped out of the stall -- totally blowing my cover -- and quickly made my way to the hostess stand.
"Dad had a heart attack," my little brother said. It was amazing how the impact of those words hit me so literally, and how by the end of the 30 second conversation I was borderline total freakout. It wasn't actually a heart attack, as I would learn when we got to the local hospital; it was a seizure. They were going to transport him to another hospital that specialized in brain tumors to identify the mass.
I followed my mom as she ghosted each member of the health team with a clipboard in hand and a bag with extra supplies on her shoulder. She listened to everything they said, she asked them to define anything she didn't recognize, and when they had her in waiting rooms she was looking up articles on her phone. Having worked with IHadCancer, I thought for sure I would have a leg up.
But I didn't. I felt awkward and out of place in the hospital. I didn't even know if brain tumors counted as cancer, and I kept hearing that they couldn't tell us what the stage was. How was I supposed to know how serious this was if I didn't know what the stage was? As it turns out, brain tumors act a little bit differently than other cancers. For Brain Tumor Awareness Month, I love the slogan #GrayMatters -- not only because it's very clever, but because it's very true! I think it's worth putting out there some general information about this particularly sneaky type of cancer:
Sparknotes for Brain Tumor Research
When doing your research, keep in mind that treatment options for brain tumors depend upon a number of factors, including:
Think In Grades, Not Stages
All I wanted to know was: "Is it cancer?" I didn't get a straight answer from the doctors, even though we were in an oncology specialist hospital. And the answer is: it depends. Even though both types of tumors are abnormal growths, the difference is in how they grow.
Brain tumors work at two pitches-- slow (low-grade I or II) and fast (high-grade III or IV). Slow-growing brain tumors are benign and often do not show any symptoms because the brain, being so smart and adaptable, adjusts to fit around the tumor until it gets too big and causes the brain to short circuit. Bam: seizure out of the blue. Because benign tumors stay contained and typically have clearly defined borders, they are not considered cancerous. Surgery is a practical and relatively safe form of treatment in their case.
High grades of brain tumors are a whole different ball game. These grades indicate tumors that are malignant (read: cancerous), often not having clear borders and are considered to be life threatening because they grow rapidly and invade surrounding brain tissue. They are also more difficult to remove and often require additional treatments including chemotherapy, radiation therapy or even clinical trials if applicable. Moreover, microscopic brain tumor cells can also remain after brain tumor surgery and have the potential to grow back.
Brain Tumor Fun Facts
For the most popular types of brain tumors, these statistics were provided by the American Brain Tumor Association:
Watching my mother teach herself what the doctors wouldn't say yet was also an experience I would like to take away from anyone who doesn't have to go through it. Right now, my dad has definitely changed since facing his mortality-- everyone in my family has. The emotional and mental long-term effects of his brain tumor are something we are still very much learning, and I wish there were more supportive resources abound for him to take advantage of. But despite its propensity, brain tumors remain one of the lesser-known health conditions of our society.
So, for this Brain Tumor Awareness Month, share this list of facts and common symptoms. Just because there are more people walking around with tumors in their brains than you would think, and dispelling the silence surrounding this incredibly common condition is one of the small contributions we can give to ending it.
American Brain Tumor Association. "Brain Tumor Statistics."
National Brain Tumor Society. "Quick Brain Tumor Facts." 2015.
If you or someone you know has been affected by a brain tumor, what has your experience in treatment been? Share in the comments below
to continue the conversation.
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by Angela Nocerino