Friday, October 21, 2011
"Chief Complaint: Brain Tumor"
“Chief Complaint: Brain Tumor” — that was the subject line in the memo from my neurosurgeon, Dr. Rosseau, to my general practitioner.
I did have a brain tumor. But, I want to state for the record that I just didn’t waltz into Dr. Rosseau’s office and complain, “Hey, I have a brain tumor.” In point of fact, I didn’t even know that I had a brain tumor.
So, how do you know if you have a brain tumor?
The clues aren’t always obvious. According to the American Brain Tumor Association’s (“ABTA”) excellent website for my type of tumor headaches are a common “initial symptom”. Headaches are also, well, common, and don’t usually mean that you have a brain tumor.
Seizures are another indicator. If you have a seizure, it’s pretty obvious that you need to go see a doctor.
But what if you don’t have a headache or a seizure? I didn’t.
Mental and personality changes are also a warning. While “mental” changes sound ominous, they could be as innocuous as short-term memory problems, speech, communication and/or concentration.
You could mark me down for “none of the above.”
In the beginning, my chief complaint was that my eyesight was becoming wonky.
What do I mean? Well, in the summer of 2010, I began to recognize that something was wrong with my vision. On an erratic basis, in the right vertical third of my right eye, I would see a cascading series of irregular images (amoebas?) that looked straight out of a ‘60s movie hallucination sequence. The rest of my right eye and my entire left eye saw what everybody else saw.
So what did I do after the first amoebas appeared? I tried to ignore it. I told myself that it was a floater. It did, when it occurred, interrupt my train of thought but, as my friends and family will tell you, that isn’t a particularly well-connected railroad in the first place.
Why didn’t I run to the doctor when I first started seeing these wild images?
Well I have a tendency, and I suspect other folks do too, to put off learning about bad news, especially regarding health issues. This is, of course, irrational behavior. In almost every case, the earlier you know about a health problem the easier it is to fix.
So why pretend you don’t have a health problem?
It wasn’t that I couldn’t handle the truth; it was more like I didn’t want to handle the truth right then. But I knew I had to “pop the pimple” sooner than later.
I know people who, even when they know they have a serious health issue, avoid going to the doctor. My grandmother’s sister refused to go to the doctor even though she was going blind. Guess what? She went blind. I have another relative – smart, well-educated, highly responsible - who refuses to go to the doctor even though he clearly has a serious health issue.
Why do we do this? I’m not sure, but I think we believe that if we can just hide from the bad news for a few more days (or weeks or months) it will buy us time. It will buy peace. It will buy calm before the impending storm. And maybe, just maybe, this aching back or sore throat or strange eye problem will fix itself.
Facing bad news head-on takes some courage.
I knew a lady who summarized this saying “You have to run to the fire.” While she used it in a business context, it applies here as well. A burning problem won’t go away on its own. It might not go away with the help of the best hospital or medical team in the world, but it can also turn into a forest fire if you don’t ask the question – “what’s wrong with me?”
I needed to ask that question.
But I felt pretty healthy and the thought of being seriously sick or ill just didn’t make sense to me. I was training for the 2010 North Shore Century – a 100 mile bike ride – and a summer of training was making me feel pretty fit. On top of that, the year before I had run the Chicago “Rock ‘n Roll” half-marathon with my youngest daughter, and later that year I finished in the top third of my age group in the Olympic distance Chicago Triathlon. I ate reasonably, wasn’t overweight, and my cholesterol and all those other health indicators were on target. How could I—of all people—be sick?
My hubris was about to be punctured and deflated like a bike tire running over a rusty nail—noisily, emphatically, and painfully.
I thought of my old friend who had developed Stage I diabetes. Since my grandfather had died from diabetes, I knew that this was serious stuff. The first time I saw my old roommate, after we had returned from a seven-year overseas assignment, I was shocked. In college he was, maybe, 215 lbs. or so. Since I’d last seen him, he had ballooned up to something north of 350 lbs. I couldn’t figure out how this happened. In addition to putting on weight, he had lost all the feeling in his feet. Horribly, he had broken a toe without knowing it until he looked down one day and said “Gee, that toe isn’t supposed to at a right angle to my foot.” (Actually I’m pretty sure he didn’t say “Gee”). And, here’s the scary part: he’s one of the smartest people I know…way smarter than I am.
So how did I know that something was wrong, I mean really, disastrously wrong? Well, the strange visions I was experiencing, which I had initially ignored, were certainly a clue. It’s the kind of clue that jumps up and down yelling “check me out, you dummy!”
But I was focused on my work. I continued to finish up a freelance marketing project and look for another consulting assignment. I yearned to be working at a start-up company with some spiffy new invention or intellectual property, or at some green technology company that was riding the wave of environmental investments. I couldn’t wait to be flying around the country “with my hair on fire” visiting prospective clients, briefing analysts, and supporting sales cycles. Work was exciting, rejuvenating, and fulfilling.
In late August, though, I had one day where I saw these disconcerting and disconnected-from-reality “amoebas” five times. Even for me that seemed a bit excessive. So, of course, I waited until after the North Shore Century in early September to dial up my physician.
My general practitioner did what any good GP does —he packed me off to an ophthalmologist (try typing that right without spell-check).
To be continued…at the ophthalmologist’s office.