I was asked to be an ANAwareness Week Ambassador this year by the Acoustic Neuroma Association. May is Brain Tumor Awareness month, and May 10-16.
This week I contributed a post on Acoustic Neuroma’s and Fear which has been posted on ANA’s Facebook page.
If you can’t access Facebook or are on a mobile device, here’s the article:
When I was fifty-one, in the midst of a very busy life, I was rudely interrupted by a brain tumor diagnosis. I didn’t have time for a medical crisis, let alone the horror of anyone entering my skull to treat it. However, through fear and an inevitable journey I learned that I was capable of surviving and growing. I would not only live, but learn to appreciate living in a way that I had never tasted before.
Life takes us where we sometimes don’t want or plan to go. Just like falling off the hay wagon in the middle of a hayride, we find ourselves flailing and reaching for something to steady our falling selves. Pain allows us to better appreciate a lack of pain. Despair allows us to recognize joy when it returns. Compassion received breeds the ability to be compassionate.
I had little fear when I went to an audiologist to measure a distinguishable decrease of hearing in my right ear. I wondered, somewhat casually, if anything could be done to correct an inner ear problem. After administering the test, the audiologist sent me to an ENT because he said my hearing loss was not normal, and possibly as bad as a brain tumor.
That was my first moment of fear, although quickly dismissed. I believe that anyone going through a medical crisis experiences fear. There’s an initial moment when the world changes. Fear and apprehension fills our minds when we get a hint that something is wrong.
Fear means we aren’t fully in control of our reactions, and each have our own unique ways of dealing with, denying, or sharing fear. It might be dry humor, prayer, or meditation. Some will curl up in a ball while others will scream. For me, fear was held closely to my heart, with casual sharing of potentially alarming information. “By the way, I might have a brain tumor.” For me, fear was externally silent or lighthearted; but very loud internally.
Fear began to germinate with the first use of “brain tumor.” Initially it was a seed deep inside pushing up as I pushed down. Unable to wrap my mind around actually having a brain tumor, I fit an MRI into my schedule. I went alone to my appointment to hear the news, willing it to be minimal. However, within a few minutes of seeing a large white blob on a computerized image of my brain, I learned what an acoustic neuroma brain tumor was specifically for Sally Stap — a benign, large growth that required immediate treatment. Fear sprouted and quickly grew from my stomach and branched to fill my heart and lungs. The word benign had deflated my worst assumptions but added confusion to the mix of emotions. I would live through this?
I spent all my energy attempting to control my involuntary reaction. Fearful not of the tumor, but fearful of breaking down in front of people. Isn’t that silly? I tried to not shake, or cry, or stammer. I wanted to speak, but words would not come. My mind raced with questions but my mouth quivered. Everyone is different, but we all fight that balance of voluntary and involuntary when we hear the word officially. Telling family and friends felt surreal, as did all planning for treatment. Fear ranged from controlled worry and fascination, to the desire to escape my body.
Always independent and private, each step of the journey required me to expose more of myself. First I could only say there was an abnormality. Eventually I was able to verbalize the words “brain tumor.” I could no longer keep fear contained in my imagination when the diagnosis became real. Fear taught me that it’s okay to depend on other people.
I was referred to Mayo Clinic and had to wait a couple weeks for an appointment. During that time, I did a lot of internet research. ANA forums allowed me to hear from people directly to understand how broad each outcome is and what I may or may not encounter. Knowledge is power so I learned what I could but then walked in the woods to abate my fears and calm my soul.
When I met the doctors at Mayo Clinic any discussion of treatment options was cut short as I was told surgery would be required. My tumor was large, I was displaying symptoms, and the tumor was pressing on my brain stem. What was important is that I was fully confident in the team I chose for treatment. I spent a month prior to surgery breathing, praying, and walking in the woods a lot. I talked to family, and had lunch with friends. Fear allowed me to depend on others and accept help.
On surgery day, sitting on a gurney in pre-op brought restlessness. I prayed. I wanted to be unconscious. As each medical professional did their part to prep me, surgery and its outcome was creeping nearer and slower. Having my doctor’s initials scribbled behind my ear raised the hair on the back my head. Entering the operating room was cold and noisy. I heard metal on metal as the instruments were prepared. I felt peace. It was time. I put myself in God’s hands and went to sleep, fear put aside for the moment.
Waking up brought new challenges. The inability to escape pain brought fear that I had no energy to acknowledge. Each unpredictable step of recovery with few definitive answers was terrifying for a “black or white” person like me. Only when I learned to accept that I’m living “only in the moment that I’m in” was I able to gain the gift of living and not fearing. Only when I learned to manage my reaction to pain and adversity by relaxing and breathing was I able to find joy in my new and different self.