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.

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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.

Three Years Later

Here I am, three years later.

This is a HUGE milestone. Today marks three years post-resection, without recurrence. I have a lot of mixed emotions to describe how I feel about today, but am predominantly overwhelmed with joy and disbelief.

I was incredibly privileged to have access to the surgeon that I did, and I will never ever stop being grateful to Dr. Mitchel Berger at UCSF for what he did for me.

Right after my surgery, I didn’t plan more than three seconds in advance. My eyes would flicker from one corner of the room to the next in amazement that I was still there, and that everyone else was still there with me too. My friends and family never left my side, and I was lucky for that. Many people in the brain tumor community can’t say the same, and I cannot thank all of you for staying by my side when I needed you the most.

When I came to ASU just under a year after surgery, I had a hard time planning more than three hours in advance because I would get so fatigued. Making plans with friends was difficult because everything was so subject to change. But my friends were awesome and so incredibly accommodating.

Then, six months or so went by and I mentally advanced to allow myself to plan three weeks out. I let myself think into the future. The first semester of my freshman year ended, and I advanced to planning a few months at a time in advance. It felt strange, but I was still living from one scan to the next in terms of what I’d let myself think and do. I wasn’t thinking about the next academic or calendar year, summer plans, or classes for the next year. I couldn’t let myself do that because it wasn’t safe to do yet. Then last year, something huge happened. After two years of good scans, I started to plan years in advance. Now, I’m envisioning myself three years from now working in the field, walking around the halls of a hospital, visiting patients. Three years later, and I can now see myself living in the future. This is a gift that I am very privileged to have, and I am not taking it for granted.

I felt like no time passed between the first year after surgery, and that hardly any passed even when I reached the second. Year three finally feels a little bit different. I’m feeling personal growth. I’m finding parts of my identity outside of my health. And I’m succeeding in so many new, different pockets of life. I recently graduated to having scans every 6 months (3 years later and I’m still forever sleeping in a magnet..), so that’s something to be proud of as well. Here I am, now taking on year four.

I read somewhere that scars like this are like a tattoo, but with a better story. My story continues.