Saturday, 2 June, is the 10-year anniversary of my brain surgery to remove a benign brain tumor in 2008. I’ve been in an edgy mood all week, snapping at friends and family members and getting extra frustrated with my son. I think this impending anniversary has been subconsciously on my mind, so I thought I would write down some thoughts. If you are reading this then I guess I decided to share them.
While I may have been avoiding the fact that this was the 10-year anniversary, the truth is I still think about the brain tumor and surgery almost every day. Some of that is because I still feel the physical affects. 10 years after a successful surgery I still have chronic neck pain. Some of this is physical, it is aggravated when I carry heavy things, hold a heavy purse, wear my hair in too tight a ponytail or sleepy funny. The pain often flares when I am stressed. ometimes I wallow in this, how unfair is it that at only 34 I am dealing with chronic neck pain from brain surgery! It is easy to feel alone and isolated in this pain. Lately I am choosing to allow it to serve, whenever possible, to allow this pain to serve as a reminder to check in with myself. Am I pushing myself to hard? Am I holding on to anger or judgment? As a yoga therapist I have the tools to know how to alleviate some of this pain, through physical practices, meditation and breath work.
The fact that I am a yoga teacher and therapist is due, in no small part, to my brain tumor and surgery. The first sign of the tumor was a seizure I had in a yoga studio in April of 2008. I often joke that if you have to have a seizure (and I hope you don’t) a yoga studio is a perfect place to have one. People are generally calm, there is likely at least one person who knows first aid and much of the ground is soft. But in seriousness if I hadn’t been at the studio I likely would have been on the subway or somewhere on the busy streets of rush hour Manhattan, where my outcome may have been much different. The reason I was at the yoga studio was I had been feeling “odd” the whole day, I had even told a friend I had the feeling something bad was going to happen. I had listened to that inner voice and left work early, certain a yoga class would heal what was ailing me. It of course didn’t but it shaped what was to come.
Yoga was a salvation during the weeks and months leading up and following my surgery. My seizure medication made me moody and lethargic and I felt isolated from family and friends who couldn’t relate to my experience Yoga was the place where I could still feel like a 24 year old woman, where it didn’t matter that I couldn’t drink or that my head was always pounding. I didn’t know it at the time but yoga was giving my body the tools to relieve the fear, anger and pain I held in my body and my mind.
I continued to practice after leaving NY, taking my practice with my to graduate school in Baltimore and all the way to Ethiopia and Ottawa. As I continued to heal I realized more and more how important yoga had been to my healing. A favorite teacher and some supportive friends encouraged me to do my initial teacher training; from there I was hooked. The more I taught and learned, the more I realized how important tool yoga could be. From the moment I learned about yoga therapy I KNEW this was something I wanted to do.
I love getting to help others learn how to use yoga as part of their healing experiences. While I have yet to work with anyone recovering from brain surgery I have helped others recovering from C-sections, hysterectomies and other surgeries and traumatic medical events. Doing so has been an amazing way to feel as if I am “paying forward” some of the amazing healing care and support I received from my yoga teachers and I am constantly honored and humbled that I am able to do such work.
This experience also shaped my birth plan, which I was very fortunate to have go almost exactly as I wanted it to. I was pretty sure I wanted a home birth, for a variety of reasons, but I was on the fence until we did a hospital visit. The hospital we visited was very nice but as soon as I walked in my whole body began to tense up. My skin felt itchy. The smell made me nauseous, I felt like the walls were too small. I hadn’t expected to have such a visceral reaction, after all I’ve spent a fair bit of time at hospital births as a doula, but this was the first time I’d been to a hospital for my own since my surgery and post-op care. I realized that I’d spent more time in hospitals than most 33 year olds and while I will always be beyond grateful for the care I received from the amazing staff there, if I can safely avoid them in the future I will. Know myself and my physical reactions to the hospitals was a huge part of my birth plan and I was so fortunate to be able to have the birth I wanted.
So of course in the 10 years since my surgery one of the biggest changes is I am now a mom. While Marcus doesn’t have anything to do with my brain tumor or surgery, I can’t think about it now without viewing the experience through the eyes of my parents. Though I was 24 years old I know my parents still saw me as their “baby” and wanted to protect me and help me feel better. I often think about how amazing and supportive they were and how difficult it must have been to know that there was not much they could do, and even that I was hurting and suffering and they couldn’t fix it.
Having gone through what I did has been a major contributing factor to my political views. I’ve always have been liberal but to be honest had never thought much about healthcare in the USA, I always had it. This changed abruptly on the weeks leading up to my surgery, because suddenly brain tumors and brain surgery were all over the news! No, I’m not that special, Senator Ted Kennedy has been diagnosed with a much more malignant brain tumor and was also having surgery on June 2. This of course prompted me to learn more about the man who I now considered my “brain surgery twin” and the policies he had spent his life fighting for. When Obama Care finally passed a few years later, my initial happiness was softened by the fact that Kennedy was no longer alive to see it happen. As the fight over healthcare has only gotten heated and crueler over the years I often think of how lucky I was to have world-class medical care! I was just a young woman who happened to have been born into a family that could provide for her healthcare and education, allowing me to get a good job that offered amazing insurance, and parents that were willing to pocket the difference. The final bill for the surgery alone was 100s of thousands of dollars, if I hadn’t had insurance I would still be paying for it today and never would have been able to get a graduate degree, let alone start my own business or have a child!
Of all the parts of my surgery the only part I actually remember clearly was, the day before my surgery, having the under part of my hair shone off. As I watched strands of curls fall to the ground things started to feel REAL. I was lucky that the surgery was on the lower side of my head and that I have so much hair no one knew layers of it were gone. Within a month I had new little “payess” and my hair was mostly even within 6 months. Just recently I began investing in my hair, researching the “curly girl method” and purchasing products to help it feel and look its best. From the outside this may seem shallow, but embracing and caring for my curly hair has been a way to heal the part of my body that was so important in healing the rest of me.
Sitting here writing this I can say I feel GOOD. The surgery was successful and I was able to go off the epilepsy medicine less than 2 years later. I’m married to the man who managed a 24 hour cross-continental visit the day before the surgery and called my sister just 30 minutes after the surgery was over to find out if I was ok. I have a wonderful family and get to do the work I love and be part of other people’s healing journeys.
I was lucky to have the resources to access amazing Western medicine as well as complimentary methods to continue my healing process. In the midst of working on others I am taking some time to wish myself a Happy Healthy Brain Day!