At this very moment last year, I was undergoing surgery that would change my life forever. Little did I know, that it would be for the better.
In May of 2016, I had my annual eye exam to get my contact prescription renewed. My eye doctor then recommended that I see a specialist, because I didn’t do as well on a peripheral vision test for the second year in a row. The specialist in turn did additional tests and took pictures of the backs of my eyes. In doing so, he discovered something was pushing on my optic nerve. I was completely surprised because I had no symptoms; no headaches, no noticeable vision issues, no motor skill or speech problems. His tests were limited though, so he asked that I have an MRI.
My MRI was the Friday of Memorial Day weekend. The next morning at 7:45 AM, I got a phone call from the eye specialist that I never saw coming. He said, “Jennifer, I’m afraid I have some bad news for you. It appears as though you have a brain tumor.”
I was in shock. Disbelief. It seemed as though we were talking about someone else. I got out a pen and a pad of paper, asked lots of questions and took copious notes. However, as soon as I got off the phone, I dropped to my knees and sobbed. My mind went from 0-60 in a matter of seconds: Would I go blind? Would I never get married again? Was I going to die? I was drowning in a sea of doubt, as I succumbed to this visceral response. After about ten minutes though, I thought, I can’t let this consume me. Actually, I won’t let it consume me. So I got out my pad of paper and a pen again and made a list of reasons why it’s “positive to have a brain tumor”.
My list starts with, Maybe I’ll lose some weight. Maybe I’ll meet a hot single doctor. Then it got a little somber, as I wrote, Great reminder to count blessings. Good excuse to reach out to people I haven’t seen in a while.
I later learned that gratitude can increase the neurochemical dopamine in your brain, so it’s no wonder that I felt better while making my list. I’m not trying to imply that expressing emotion is bad. We all know that a good cry can be cathartic. What I learned though, is that it’s possible to keep a situation from consuming you, if you have the right perspective.
Between my diagnosis in May and my surgery in August, I had plenty of time to worry, so as I would lay in bed and think, Am I going to go bankrupt from medical bills? Am I going to lose cognitive abilities for my job? I learned to switch gears and count blessings. For example, I would think, I’m grateful for health insurance. I’m grateful for access to good healthcare. I’m grateful for supportive family and friends. Again, the gratitude would take the edge off my worrisome feelings.
My type of tumor is called a Meningioma. It grew between my skull, optic nerve, carotid artery and the outer lining of my brain. The thought is that it did so for decades. I was warned that during surgery, I could have a blood clot, stroke, onset of blindness or even die. The risks were fairly small, but they still weighed on my mind the night before surgery. In an effort to make myself feel better, I made a song list of upbeat music on my smartphone. My thought was that if upbeat music can motivate people training for a marathon or lifting weights, then why not someone facing surgery? As I showered the night before and morning of surgery, the sounds of reggae, dance music and old school hip hop helped me pretend that my bag was packed for a vacation, not a six hour surgery and eight days in the hospital. I later learned that just like gratitude, music can increase the “feel good” chemicals of your brain, e.g., dopamine, serotonin, endorphins. That’s why stadiums play music during sporting events. All it takes is a little, “We Will Rock You” by Queen or the opening guitar riff from Guns and Roses’ “Welcome to the Jungle” to get people on their feet, clap their hands and dance. Music can be our friend.
The surgeon was able to remove half my tumor and the rest was addressed with radiation. Music also helped with my radiation sessions. The radiation techs allowed me to make another upbeat song list on my phone, which played from a docking station in the radiation lab. During each of my roughly three minute radiation sessions, I would “dance on the inside” and quiz myself on the respective lyrics. One time I was actually disappointed when a session was done, because I wanted to finish listening to a song. How crazy is that? Ha! The music was a great distraction.
There were other things that helped me feel better during the healing process and my six weeks of radiation. Random acts of kindness, the love of pets, facing fears and enjoying humor, all played important roles in my recovery. They too can increase the feel good chemicals of our brains. The important thing is to be open to them. Perspective is key.
Pets are used in nursing homes, pediatric dental care practices, college campuses during finals week and even the Minneapolis airport to help people relax. Humor is used in hospice care centers to help make people smile. It can literally feel good to laugh.
I’m happy to note that I feel like I’m a better person for the fears that I faced and overcame. I’m also happy to note that my life is back to normal and that I have an enhanced sense of gratitude. While there are no guarantees that the tumor won’t someday return, I’ve chosen to concentrate on what I know, rather than what I could fear. Even though we can’t control the quantity of our lives, it’s empowering to know that we can influence the quality of them. Rather than worry about what may lie ahead, we can reflect on how far we’ve come. The best things in life are free. That’s the power of emotional grit.