Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine
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Beating Cancer By How You Live - Brain Tumor Awareness Month

lauren-collage.jpgHi, I’m Lauren and I have a Grade III Astrocytoma, a type of brain cancer.

On May 30th 2015, 26 year-old me went to work, to the gym and to bed as normal. When I woke up, I was in a hospital bed. I’d experienced a grand mal seizure in my sleep. Scans showed that I had a mass the size of a lime on the left side of my brain and surgery was needed. I was very fortunate to be moved to Northwestern and have Dr. James Chandler and Dr. Matthew Tate tag-team the tumor by performing brain mapping and an awake craniotomy. This was because my tumor was chilling on the motor-strip, the area that controls movement and speech. I was awake for a portion of the surgery during which electric currents were applied to the area around the tumor; if I felt a sensation then that was brain, if I didn’t then that was tumor.

The diagnosis hit me like in the movies when the room goes hazy and sound is muted. My mind went blank. Finally I asked, “So is this serious?” My doctor: “Yes, Lauren, this is serious. It’s cancer.” Hours later, between sobs, I clearly remember saying “I just want to grow old.”

I actually got a twofer – cancer and focal epilepsy. I now had no control of my right arm or hand. After intensive therapy, I regained use of them, but my fine motor skills aren’t great in my right hand - 2 fingers have minimal sensation. So I’m now ambidextrous (a cool new skill) and taking epilepsy meds forever (boo).

I hear about people who never asked the “Why me?” question. That’s one of the first things I asked. “Why me?” and “why the brain?” This is my mind, it makes me who I am. Would people think I wasn’t as capable because there’s a tumor in my head?

Not seeing anyone my age in the hospital’s cancer center was tough, and while my peers were buying houses and having babies I was going through fertility preservation, radiation, losing my hair, and chugging chemo pills. This is not what I had envisioned for my 20’s. But, as Winston Churchill said, “If you’re going through hell, keep going.”

Once treatment was over, I compartmentalized my diagnosis and went back to ‘normal’ life. I even ran a half marathon! But I underestimated the toll this would have on my mental health as time went on. Finding an AYA group showed me I wasn’t alone. The thoughts and feelings other AYAs voiced were the same things I’d held in my head since my diagnosis, and it felt like a weight had been lifted.

I do worry about a recurrence and my diagnosis impacts choices I make in life. Stuart Scott’s speech at the 2014 ESPYs resonates with me; “When you die, it does not mean that you did not beat cancer. You beat cancer by how you live, why you live, and in the manner in which you live.”  So I work, travel whenever I can, I have amazing people in my life, and my diagnosis pushed me to adopt my dog (who is now my uncertified emotional support buddy).

I’ll end this with shout outs to the amazing Dr. Priya Kumthekar and team, that one phlebotomist with the painless stick, my family and friends, and to the real MVPs - my Mum and Stepdad.