Graduation & The Blog: 4 Years Later

When I started college four years ago, I was a shell of a person. My surgery had taken place less than a year prior, and I felt it. I really, really felt it. Fifteen minutes of a reading assignment required a nap from brain exhaustion. So did having lunch with friends in the noisy dining hall, a fishbowl of voices coming from every direction. The flashbacks to the awake portion of surgery were overwhelming, and I think that they were one of the hardest parts to push through.

While I found a way to camouflage my needs in the classroom using tan earplugs to muffle the extreme noise sensitivity and audio recording notebooks to help with memory retention, some professors lacked tact in assisting with my accommodations. The awkward instances of direct mention that the class notetaker was for me, while initially bothersome, eventually became a good segway for the ultimately necessary conversation about my health history with new friends.

I wanted people to know about my surgery. They needed to know it in order to understand me – and, to know why I wore ear plugs everywhere. Now, almost five years later, they still need to know, even if I don’t wear the earplugs anymore. The difference between when I started college and now is that back then, I thought my limits were deal breakers or opportunity enders in all the wrong ways. I didn’t think that I could go out with friends, or participate in anything outside of the academic arena because I wouldn’t have the energy or excitement levels to keep up with peers. Now, I realize that my limits are actually opportunities in themselves, and that my activities of daily living and otherwise just take a little bit more thought and extra care and thought than most others. The need to nap isn’t something to be embarrassed about. Oftentimes, people are actually jealous that I’ve arranged a schedule or figured out how to manage a life that fits in time for a nap now and again!

What strikes me the most as the biggest difference between four years ago and now is the ability to imagine a future. I didn’t make plans farther than a few hours in advance during my freshman year. I couldn’t even comprehend the following week. I illogically didn’t think that I would live to see that long. Flashbacks to surgery and fear of recurrence controlled everything I did. Selecting courses for the next semester seemed trivial for the first two years of college because I was that certain of a recurrence. The MRIs, switching seizure medications sophomore year, and figuring out what to do when seizing in class were so confusing and exhausting that planning for a life outside of medical mayhem just didn’t seem possible. Then, something just changed. My brain chilled out, the new meds started working, I seized less, and I hit my life, health, personal, and academic stride. The flashbacks and fear eased, and I was able to be a more typical college student – at least, in ways that made sense to me – and started to look ahead.

Two weeks ago I graduated the healthiest and happiest in my life.

IMG_0742

Image description: A college graduate wearing a maroon cap and gown with two sets of tassels and a medal. Their black shoes and pants are visible underneath and are holding a maroon diploma case while standing in front of a large, gold colored 2017 block letter statue with the number 20 stacked on top of the number 17.

Not only did I graduate, but I did so with a 3.99 GPA from the honors college, and was awarded the most outstanding thesis in my college. I had the opportunity to work in multiple child development labs, and be funded to conduct my own patient population research outside of the university. That research is now being utilized by that community’s lead national organization as well! Next up is my MSW with a health concentration out in Seattle starting in the fall.

I saw my neuro-oncologist here in Arizona yesterday, and she told me the wildest thing: she’s retiring to go and open up a breakfast food truck in rural Arkansas! She said that she has worked every day of her life since she was seventeen, and even though she could certainly work in the field longer (she’s just under sixty), she wants to go and do something more fulfilling in her personal life. This choice was inspired by an epiphany she had after organizing a family reunion out there last summer, and I couldn’t be happier for her. She’s a world-class name in the neuro oncology field, and she’s exchanging her scrub cap in for an apron and skillet. The stress melted right off of her face when she started talking about the truck (The Peck & Egg) named after what her mom used to call sunny side up eggs, for anyone wondering. She also cleared me for annual scans, and gave me names for referrals in Seattle.

When I first started this blog, I did so with the intent of creating something that future brain tumor patients entering college could look to and say, “You know what? This is doable. I can make this work.” in the context of college and chronic illness. I also used it as a way to track and update a large group of people about my health all at once, while simultaneously sharing what I had been up to and learned at conferences. Many students, parents, and fellow patient advocates have reached out to me after finding this blog, some of whom I’ve even had the privilege to meet up with in person.

I don’t know if I will continue this blog going forward, though. I struggle with this decision, as the brain tumor community has so few people and stories available as is. How I feel about this blog right now is similar to how I felt about the video updates I recorded for the first nine months or so after my surgery, eventually setting their access to private. Recording the videos as updates and documentation were what I needed, until they weren’t. Eventually they weren’t what I felt anyone else really needed to see unless it was a contextual teaching moment, in which case I shared direct links to specific videos, some of which I’ve linked within posts on here before.

You don’t grow up and out of a brain tumor, but, you may reach a life stage where this identity can take more of a back seat in your life. I am wondering if I am at that point right now. I do know that I will maintain #BTSM Chats and other related projects. The #BTSM community showed me that our medical experiences have meaning outside of ourselves, and I am continuing to explore what that meaning means for others and myself. These connections run so deep that I am even attending the wedding of one lovely chat participant at the end of July! With that being said, I am also now finally at a point to have multiple other parts of my life that portray meaning outside of this health identity. I’ve spent the past year exploring these parts more than I ever have before, and like I said, I’ve also had the happiest and healthiest year of my life. And that – that is something that can’t be ignored. It means something.

A surprise worth sharing

Being here, senior year, is a surprise worth sharing.

I thought maybe I would make it through the first, or second year of college. Then I would have a recurrence, go through treatment again, and die. It wasn’t just a fear; it was statistical and founded in research. Brain tumors are the number one killer of those under the age of 19 and with my tumor type a recurrence within the first two year isn’t all that uncommon. Now at 21, I am graduating college. I have not had a recurrence, and I am stable. My next scan is coming up, but I’m not even worried. In fact, I forgot that I even needed to make the appointment. Whatever happened to scanxiety?

I never thought that I would make it to this point. When I entered my freshman year of college it had been less than a year since my awake-craniotomy. I was still having flashbacks to surgery on nearly a daily basis. My life was living in fear moment to moment, wondering when the next seizure would hit, when I would be told to pack up and come home to live with my parents because I couldn’t safely live on my own anymore. I thought that I would go to school for as long as I could, learn as much as I could, and just try to experience as much as possible for as long as possible.

This didn’t really hit me until I defended my thesis because a thesis is something that people plan for. They start their research early, they select committee members, and they write for years. I did so, but I didn’t expect to actually follow the plan through to the end, because I didn’t think that I would get the chance to. The night before I defended I realized how shocked I was to be in this position. It was so…satisfying. The same professor I met my shell-shocked freshman year, back when I couldn’t sit through a film in class because the sound was too loud, was the same committee member that I met with every week this semester to put the finishing touches on my thesis, and the same committee member who saw me blossom into someone who believed in the possibility of a future.

For so long I just didn’t think that one would come. I was so afraid of tomorrow, of next week, next month, the next scan, that when I finally started being able to plan years in advance it seemed beyond my wildest imagination that I would actually get there.

Sophomore Year In Review

This year completely flew by! I can’t believe that I’m halfway done with my undergraduate career. I feel like the first semester just wrapped up. If I could, I would rewind to the end of the first semester and start over from there again. I’m a nerd..I absolutely love school, and would stay here forever if I could. I would probably attend the biomedical, business, engineering, and marketing classes just to see what they were like if they didn’t conflict with my schedule. Well, we know that I would attend the biomedical.

But school isn’t just learning, though, it’s the social opportunities that come with it too. I had a fantastic job working on campus this year and got to meet to many incredible people with such drive and passions that I never could have guessed that I would meet coming into the year. While I won’t be returning to work there next year, I don’t regret working there for a minute, and I found my roommate for this summer and next year because of that job. Speaking of that roommate, we both moved into our new apartment yesterday, and it’s awesome.

I wrapped up sophomore year with a 4.0, and made the Dean’s List both semesters. That leaves me with a 3.9 cumulative GPA for the two years that I’ve been here. Woot woot! I TAed for a course this year as well, and really enjoyed working together with the professor and PhD student on that. I take a lot of pride in my academic work, and it is pretty obvious that I also find a lot of self-worth in my academic success. I used to derive my self-worth from being the best on the tennis court, or whatever other sports arena that I competed in as a serious athlete, but ever since my back and brain surgeries I have not been able to compete in those same ways. The classroom has since become my arena, and exams and courses have become my competitions. I of course find self worth in character traits, friendships, and other aspects of life and myself as well, but I would be wrong not to point out the obvious and glaring importance that I place on academic success.

My favorite course this year by far was one of my Child Life courses called Children Facing Health Care Challenges. While it was only a brief overview of psychosocial assessments of hospitalized and chronically ill children, and techniques to support their coping, I learned a lot, and have another course with the same professor in the fall. As someone who considers themself to be chronically ill, I thought that all of the information was spot on, and that the professor did an excellent job delivering the information, even though the course was taught online.

There was one course, though, Early Childhood Intervention, that I struggled with this year for a reason that surprised me. While the course focused on an age group (0-3) unrelated to any treatment or medical procedures that I could recall or even had any health problems with at the time, a particular unit of the class focused on trauma, and I continuously experienced flashbacks from my surgery and other hospital visits as we went into detail about PTSD and how trauma can effect children down the road. I think that the professor noticed, because she came up to me after several classes to ask me mundane questions, as if she was waiting for me to disclose that I was struggling to her. That was really difficult for me, because I hadn’t had any flashbacks in what felt like months, even though it had unfortunately only been weeks, and then I had to sit there and have them multiple times a week.

I am now starting to get my thoughts together for my honors thesis, and that is very exciting. It will be on the topic of end of life for school-aged children and adolescents. I have my committee fully formed, and now it’s time to get in the research zone. I’ll be spending much of my free time reading to get a jump on that so that I can defend this spring as a junior and get it out of the way instead of stressing over it as a senior. I have quite a few friends who are seniors who are preparing to defend this spring as well, so we can research, drink coffee, and complain together.

In other news, tomorrow will be my first day volunteering in the Child Life department at a children’s hospital out here, and I am ecstatic! I am spending the summer out here in Arizona, and I have been warned that I just might melt. I was excited that my scrub pants were black, ie no awkward sweat stains when I take the bus to get there, but then I was told that it gets so hot that no color is truly safe from sweat stains, which was terrifying to hear. Regardless, wearing scrubs feels like wearing your pajamas to work, and I am all about that.

Are you feeling better today?

Friends, professors, and coworkers have continued to be incredibly understanding of my temporary decrease in focus and energy levels. I missed several work meetings to nap the week before last, and everyone was completely ok with it. Those who weren’t aware of my brain tumor and seizure history at work were alarmed and skittish when I casually mentioned to them that I wasn’t making the meetings because I was trying a new medication and needed to rest. They then started asking me if I was feeling better the next day, the day after that, and the day after that, and eventually I just told them that I was feeling ok. Over the past seven or so years, I’ve come to learn you can’t expect those who haven’t dealt with a chronic condition before to understand that you don’t suddenly wake up the next day feeling better, as nice as that would be for them to understand. Regardless, all of my coworkers truly do care, and I’ve heard so many horrible stories from other college students with invisible illnesses about professors and coworkers treating them like absolute crap when they’re feeling sick or changing medications, so I truly am lucky to be in such considerate company. I’d also say that I am either gaining some of my energy back, or that I’m getting a little bit more used to the fatigue after the past three weeks of Zonegran, because this past week didn’t feel as bad as the first two.

The last two Zonegran side effects standing appear to be limited battery life and nausea. They pose the expected problems…

Problem: I still want to go back to sleep after just one class (way more than just a regular college student, I swear)

Solution: drink a chai tea with two shots of espresso as just the right combination to stay alert without getting jittery

Problem: getting everything I need to get done without falling asleep

Solution: plan the entire day out ahead of time, literally hour by hour, in order to spread energy levels accordingly, and allot time for some tasks to take place the next day if needed

Problem: the preschoolers I work with on campus on Tuesday and Thursday afternoons use up half of the day’s energy

Solution: hang out with the kids sitting in the sandbox instead of the cops and robbers lovers when it’s time to play outside

Problem: still relatively nauseous 24/7

Solution: always have ginger tea in my backpack so that I can drink some wherever I am on/off campus, whenever

Problem: decreased appetite re: nausea + in general

Solution: still working on it (/also sad because I love eating everything, all of the time). Your suggestions are welcomed.

bdday meme

Fun fact: it was brought to my attention this week that I was so out of it when I scheduled my six-week check-in with Dr. Z that I scheduled it for the morning of my 20th birthday at the end of the month. Cool.

I’ve been trying to forget

I’ve been trying to forget what magazine subscriptions belong to which waiting room offices. I’ve been trying to forget the names of receptionists, and the faces of which technicians blow veins.

I’ve been trying to live a normal college student life.

Well, the music is too loud. The hot yoga classes are too early in the day. And, the excitement over the new (mediocre) Asian cuisine restaurant is overrated.

I filed a maintenance request to fix my bathroom door that had somehow come off its hinges last week. As the custodian’s drill bit whirred and the screws brought the door back to the wall, I remembered. Dr. P’s face came back in focus and he asked me to identify the objects and letters appearing on the screen, pressing the spacebar to set off the thick, mechanical swooshing sound that moved from one picture to the next. I hadn’t seen his face in two or three weeks, and that had been a victory.

We briefly talked about axons, dendrites, synapses, and other basic neuroscience in a class this week. We brushed right on through the PowerPoint slide, not evening mentioning the duties of each lobe and delicate area of the brain. I wanted to pipe up and explain their functions, but I didn’t. The word plasticity was mentioned, and I remembered the sound of Dr. B’s voice. I remember his reassuring response to my questions, reminding me that the brain rewires and relearns.

I’ve been trying to forget, but all I can do is remember.

I have been trying to distance myself from my medical memories and subconscious patterns of reminders over the past month, but life keeps calling myself back to remember. These memories are haunting me, and they mean something. Maybe I’m not ready to forget, or, maybe it’s that I’m not supposed to?

Sophomore Year

My second year of college is officially underway. I am still living on campus in what is considered upperclassmen dorms. I made the decision to stay on campus in case a new health concern arose, as well as to remain in a relatively quiet environment. I have to admit, I do semi-regret the decision. Many of my friends live in nearby apartment complexes and I miss not seeing them as much. However, my single room is quiet and peaceful all of the time, so I am definitely not complaining about my living conditions themselves, just not waking up to my buddies in the morning. The new kids in town, freshmen, have never been so obvious, walking around huddled together like little ducklings with their gold lanyards swinging back and forth. They even managed to start a fire outside one of the dorms last week (WHY?!).

Surprise: I changed my major from Elementary and Special Education to Family and Human Development with a focus in Child Life. I thought that I wanted to teach within hospitals, but, I no longer see myself leading a classroom full of students anymore. My teacher’s college courses have made me realize that while I do find education fascinating, I want to know why children think the way they think, how their families function, and what outside of the classroom makes them the student that they have become. Best explained in one of my McGraw Hill textbooks, “Child life specialists work with children and their families when the child needs to be hospitalized. They monitor the child’s activities, seek to reduce the child’s stress, and help the child to cope and to enjoy the hospital experience as much as possible. Child life specialists may provide parent education and develop individualized treatment plans based on an assessment of the child’s development, temperament, medical plan, and available social supports.” Do I think that I would have learned about or been interested in this career had I not spent so much time in the hospital? Probably not. Do I think that this career best suits me? Absolutely.

Announcement: I also have a job on campus this year! I am the Social Media Chair for an organization that focuses on community service, community outreach, social entrepreneurship, innovation, and student-driven social change. We work as connectors to other organizations and resources on campus as well. The job keeps me busy, which I like. I was weary about disclosing my medical conditions at first, but then I noticed that a co-worker was wearing a medical alert bracelet (for diabetes), and we bonded over shared stories and experiences of being the “sick kid” at school. Another co-worker missed a day with a massive migraine, and we bonded over headache struggles. I wondered if I should disclose my various conditions to the faculty advisor, but waited a few weeks until doing so. She was very supportive, and even shared that her brother-in-law had passed away from GBM. It wasn’t one of those cancer comparison stories where a person tells you about someone they knew with the same condition who died because they were so uncomfortable that they didn’t know what else to say. Instead, it was a way of her reaching out and saying hey, I know that this is hard, and I will do whatever I have to do to help you. I really appreciated that gesture, as well as how co-workers have checked in with me during events to see if the noise level is too loud, or to ask if I need to take a quiet break somewhere. Working with this team of tremendously hard working, dedicated, and driven students has been an incredible experience so far, and I can’t wait to see what the rest of the year brings for our organization.

Exercise plan: I’ve been really into swimming since I returned from First Descents this summer, but now that I’m back on campus I haven’t been getting into the pool as much. I’ve been going to the gym with one of the co-workers that I mentioned above, and I can’t tell you enough how helpful it is to have someone else there with you to cheer you on. I also signed up for a yoga class this fall, because why not? I had to get a doctor’s note to prove to the instructor that I wouldn’t pass out and die in the middle of class once I disclosed my medical history to him. I’m not sure that the note was something that I legally had to provide for him, but it wasn’t too difficult to acquire, so I did it anyways. To my surprise, I was actually pretty dizzy for most of the first class, 99.9% likely due to all of the head movement. The class will carve out a set schedule for exercise during my week, as well as strengthen my back.

Not a surprise: Once again, there was an awkward situation when it came to setting up disability accommodations with a professor. Last semester’s incident was horrendous, but this situation was more of an kind-hearted accident. I had reminded a professor to read off the statement provided by the disability resource center that requests another student in the class to scribe and submit their notes to the DRC for $25 per credit hour – the student essentially gets paid to submit a copy of their notes, something that they are already doing for the class anyways. He then added an extra slide to the lesson’s PowerPoint and made the announcement mid-class where he had inserted the slide so that he wouldn’t forget. Just as class ended, he looked at me, asked if he had asked about a notetaker, re-asked the class, and then asked me if he did the announcement correctly. This professor was very nice about it all and meant very well, he just didn’t realize that he had singled me out. The purpose of announcing that a notetaker is needed is to provide an accommodation for an anonymous student in enrolled in the course, not to identify them to the entire class. This accommodation serves as a backup plan for days when I have a seizure, or when my hand/arm is too weak/heavy to take notes. Having an extra copy of notes to refer to also helps in case I wasn’t able to write down a point fast enough. As I move farther and farther away from my surgery, I find myself feeling the need to justify any accommodation or “special treatment” that I receive more and more, even though that I don’t have to. This feelings stems from the notion that people who don’t look “sick” don’t need help. But, we still do.

Check back here in another week for a TWO year post-cranio reflection.

Plight of The Paper

I’ve been worried about seizures more than usual recently.

I pulled my first “all-nighter” on Thursday/Friday to complete a paper. It wasn’t like I procrastinated and saved everything for the night before the deadline – I had worked on the paper for two solid weeks. I made four appointments with the writing center, two office hours visits with my professor, and talked through edits by five of my friends. Yet, I still needed more time to formulate ideas and put my words into writing. This paper was also the first analytical essay I had written since my brain surgery, so it was a test for my memory, overall writing skills, and confidence. There’s only so much you can write about Antigone!

Sigh…there’s actually a lot you can write about Antigone. I scraped by with five pages out of the 5-6 page assignment.

In some ways, college actually IS more stressful than awake-brain surgery! Compensating for my deficits is draining. Working harder than my peers for the same results is disappointing. With a 3.7 GPA in high school while taking predominately honors classes, I’m used to being one of the best in a highly competitive academic environment while working equally as hard as everyone else. It’s very new for me to be behind from the start of the race. Everyone enjoys a good comeback story in sporting event, but it’s the domination of teams from the start that blows you away. I miss dominating. Speaking of comebacks, our flag football team is 0-3; We didn’t make the playoffs, so tonight is our last night to shine and hopefully get the W!

Back to seizures: I had my first medium sized seizure last night since I’ve started college. I’m assuming that it stemmed from Thursday/Friday’s lack of sleep finally catching up to me. My roommate was a big help and she made sure I felt ok to fall asleep before she left me alone. The seizure was atypical and started in my leg and face, rather than my hand and arm. My right hand curled up as usual and started to feel heavy with a lack of muscle control. As a college student, there really isn’t time to stop and think “Ok, I had a seizure yesterday, so today I should be careful and do x, y, and z.” Classes don’t stop, and homework isn’t delayed. I felt groggy throughout today but couldn’t just not go to class. I was SO close to leaving my physics class to nap, but I willed myself to stay and grabbed some coffee afterwards to stay awake.

After Thursday/Friday’s late night/morning, I wondered when the seizure would hit me. I knew it was coming. Unfortunately, it always does; Lack of sleep is my biggest seizure trigger. I wondered, if I didn’t seize the following day, then when would it hit me? Would I have my usual symptoms, or something new? Would I be in the middle of a big crowd? Would someone know what to do? As a precaution and out of fear, I’ve been sleeping with my medical alert bracelet on. I figure having the bracelet on would help in case someone ever found me unconscious.

Check out the article “I Don’t Know How to Be Anything But A Patient” when you get a chance. I think that the article, particularly the bottom half of it, is a great representation of life post-cancer, brain surgery, or any type of major health condition or event. As the author Kate Sievers says, “I wish they would’ve taught me how to deal with this in cancer school.”

I haven’t heard back from my neurosurgeon yet, but I should get a report by the end of this week. I’ll post about his report when I hear the latest and greatest news.

Getting Started

So far I’ve had one English, physics, and math class. I’m looking forward to my English class getting off the ground. Part of the class includes analyzing blogs and creating a blog about the reading we do..who would have thunk!

My physics class seems like it’ll pose a bit of a challenge. We go right from a two hour lecture into a two hour lab session, where we put the lecture knowledge to use. Processing the lecture information and heading right into application of that knowledge didn’t go very well on Thursday. I’m hoping to get the lab information ahead of time in order to understand the tasks and concepts with less of a struggle.

I’ve never been a fan of math unless it was basic plug-and-chug algebra where all you have to do is memorize an equation and then repeatedly put that equation to use with different numbers. I had hoped to either test out of a math credit or have the option of taking statistics because I just completed a stats course a few months ago. As it turned out, I tested just below testing out, but high enough to set me up for calculus. There was no way in hell I was going to take calculus! I figure that I’m not going to be teaching my elementary age students anything more advanced than basic algebra at most. I took ib pre-calc my junior year in high school and found it to be my most difficult class. So, instead of taking calc with all new concepts, I opted to re-take pre-calculus. I had my first class today and I can’t even begin to explain how physically draining math has become for me. My body walked slower and I even talked slower after leaving the class. Walking up the stairs to get back upstairs to the first floor was much harder than I anticipated. I thought my English class would be harder than math. I didn’t think I’d have any brain sleepiness with math concepts, but I think that the critical thinking is challenging more than the subject itself.

I spent several hours in the library yesterday finishing my English homework for this upcoming week. A reading assignment that probably took my classmates twenty minutes took me nearly two hours. I read the text, listened to the text being read aloud online, and went back a third time to re-annotate the chapters. Afterwards I wrote my first blog post for the class blog due Wednesday. Although English is my favorite subject and will likely be my favorite class this semester, I always feel like I need to put extra preparation into the class for fear of slipping up. Tomorrow kicks off my first week of class..dun da da dunn.

I’ve been having really meaningful conversations with a girl on my floor who has Osteogenesis Imperfecta, otherwise known as OI or brittle bone disease. We’ve had various discussions regarding our strengths and weaknesses, owning our conditions, and identifying how we use our disabilities to improve our communities. She made a presentation about the disabled community in class last week and the following quote puts words to something I hadn’t been able to put my finger on before..how to adapt and understand that our condition is simply a part of us, no different than the color of our hair or eyes. It’s normal for us, it’s just different for others.

“Many of you may incorrectly assume my disability is something I have to deal with, as if it’s somehow a problem or an issue I have to address. The only obstacles I have to face are the ones society places in front of me” – a wise young soul