I wanted to share my story on this site because I vividly remember how much reading the accounts of others made me feel less alone. I remember how these stories gave me a glimmer of hope in a time where everything seemed to be growing darker, when the prognosis felt so grim. This narrative of mine has recently entered its seventh year, and I have passed enough milestones that now motivate me to write about my experience.
Seated in the emergency department, in May 2009, a nurse pushed lorazepam into my IV line to control my shaking before transporting me to an MRI. The CT image in front of me displayed a lesion in my brain that would later be diagnosed as an anaplastic astrocytoma. At that moment, I was a twenty-three year old biomedical engineer working for a medical device company in research and development, had recently moved in with my girlfriend, and had always been healthy. Everything changed; I become a cancer patient overnight. The events following my diagnosis were a blur. Following an awake craniotomy, I began treatment that included external beam radiation and concurrent chemotherapy in the form of Temodar.
Following my initial treatment I began adjuvant therapy of five on twenty three days off Temodar. I was fortunate enough to have no delays due to neutropenia throughout my time receiving treatment. Fast forward a year and one recurrence scare (a second opinion was invaluable in avoiding a second craniotomy) I found myself in a completely different state and city with my now fiancÃ©e starting medical school. I was looking for a job, continuing my Temodar regimen, and trying to answer the ever present question in my mind: "What do I want to do with my life?" There were other questions of course, but the answer to this one I realized I actually had some control over. Ironically I had never had such introspection before I was diagnosed, when my perceived "time" seemed to be in oversupply. The answer I came up with is that I wanted to matter; I wanted my life to have more meaning. I wanted to positively impact those around me during whatever time I had left on this planet. It sounds a little ridiculous and dramatic typed out like that but that is truly how I felt. And so, I began volunteering over the next year in medical clinics and mobile hospitals that went around the underserved neighborhoods of New Orleans. Eventually this culminated in my decision to become a physician and the desire to provide care to those who are diagnosed with cancer. My motivation came from a strong desire to reciprocate the heartfelt compassion and support I received during my treatment to patients of my own.
Four years later and a score of stable MRIs, I recently graduated medical school and matched into the field of radiation oncology. Although I have more years of training still ahead of me, I have found fulfillment in life that I would not have had otherwise. The future is always uncertain, for cancer survivors and for everyone else, and I am still learning how to balance living for the moment while planning for the time ahead. Those diagnosed with a brain tumor may tread very different paths, but we are all survivors beginning on Day 1. I have been living my life as such, and encourage those I meet as well as my future patients that although we may have cancer, we are not defined by it.
It's been over a year already; amazing how fast time flies. I recently had another stable MRI and decided with my oncologist to move to 1-year intervals. Quite the jump after going from every 2 months to 3, 4, and recently 6 months respectively. While less surveillance can be a little anxiety provoking, it also brings quite a sense of relief. Since the last Update:, I have also started my residency in radiation oncology and find fulfillment on a daily basis in the care and treatment of those diagnosed with cancer (especially since it wasn't that long ago I was in their situation). Life is good and I am fortunate to still be alive. Until next time.
It has been just over a year since my last Update: and as the old adage goes, no news is good news. My first 1-year interval MRI showed no interval changes for which I am very fortunate. I am now in my third year of residency in radiation oncology; I can't believe how fast time seems to pass. Although the future is always uncertain for us all, I certainly would not have predicted where I am today. That being said, I am grateful for the outcome I have had and the time to positively impact those around me.
It has been yet another year since my last Update: and I now have reached the 10-year mark of survivorship from my brain tumor. As I reflect on the last 10 years, my perspective has continually changed. Initially I couldn't go more than a minute without thinking about my tumor and prognosis but as time has passed, I worry about a recurrence less and less. I wish I could say I never think about it but if that's a price to pay to live this far past my diagnosis, it is something I continue to gladly pay. I had a little scare earlier this year when I had some right facial/tongue numbness which prompted to move up my yearly MRI. As expected, no change was noted and the symptoms self-resolved over the next couple of weeks. It was still a reminder that despite being so far out (almost 10 years at that point) the emotion and anxiety never truly go away, at least for me. The "new normal" is what long-term survivors find themselves in regardless of their cancer type, and it is just a fact of being a cancer survivor. I also gave a lecture a few months ago at a survivorship conference focused on how we define a survivor. My belief is that it is not necessarily linked to "cured" per se, and that you are a survivor from the moment you are diagnosed. Surviving the process of diagnosis, of subsequent treatment, and the anxiety of the next follow-up appointment after completion of therapy are all part of being a survivor. This appeared to resound with many who attended this conference and I hope to continue my efforts in survivorship once I have finished my residency training. Until then, I continue to work hard at learning everything I can about radiation oncology and look forward to another year.