My Most Rebellious Organ

In 2012 my brain tried to strangle me with a stroke, and more recently that sulky grey prima donna inside my head has rebelled against me yet again..

Grey Matters

I’ve had a growing ringing in my ears over the past few years. The ear doctor initially chalked this up to the tinnitus of an aging git staring down the barrel of 60. However, subsequent tests showed a steeper hearing decline on my right side than my left. He thought this was related to right-side stroke damage, but wanted to make absolutely sure, and ordered an MRI. A wise precaution, as scans showed an alien something in my brain. He referred me to a brain surgeon, who confirmed that the lurking shadowy interloper was a brain tumour.

Hearing that phrase again filled me with dread. As the child of a woman who died young of brain cancer, I vividly remembered similar conversations in St. Vincent’s Hospital, and the heartbreaking grimness that soon followed.. But the surgeon clarified that this tumour was NOT malignant. The tumour that killed my mother all those years ago was cancerous and mine is not. It would not race through my grey matter and kill me mere months after diagnosis, as happened to her. However, before I relaxed completely, he stressed that it was still dangerous. Even a so-called ‘benign’ tumour could wreak untold damage if allowed to grow in the confined space of my skull.

This tumour is at the base of my brain stem, where nerves bring sensory data from my body to be transformed into neurological info. Specifically, on a nerve cluster that contains balance, auditory and facial data. If it grew, many of the early symptoms of my stroke would permanently return. Facial droop & paralysis, difficulty speaking, and balance problems to name a few. Such early symptoms were masked in my case, as I have them already. If I’d not had a stroke in 2012, this evil greebly skulking in my noggin may have been noticed years earlier. But in this case, hearing loss in my right ear was the first sign that something other than my stroke was to blame.

Grey Matters

After my stroke, I learned that damage on the left side of the brain mostly causes symptoms on the right side of the body. That isn’t the case here. Both the damage and the effects are on the right side of my brain & body, because the tumour site is before the left-side/right-side data switch that happens higher in the brain.

This surgeon recommended a watch & wait policy. The tumour is surrounded by lots of important real estate with no margin for error. He didn’t want to sharpen his scalpels until something more serious than high frequency hearing loss forced his hand. But he referred me to a specialist in radiosurgery, for another opinion. 

This second neurosurgeon specialises in non-invasive technique called GAMMA KNIFE. It uses focussed beams of gamma radiation rather than an actual knife. Unlike the scalpel man, this second surgeon wanted to move quickly. After conferring with his colleagues (and a frustrating week of waiting for insurance approval) I got a phone call on a Thursday night, telling me to prepare for brain surgery very early the next Tuesday morning.

A few days before Halloween 2021, I reported before dawn to UCSF. A sort of Hellraiser horror helmet was literally screwed into my head. Then, I had a new MRI for the latest size & position of the tumour. I waited a couple of hours, with the Hannibal Lechter helmet still attached, while the surgeon and radiologist prepared. Using the MRI data, they programmed the firing sequence for their photon torpedoes, and planned their attack run on my internal Death Star trench.

Eventually, I was wheeled into the room with the GAMMA KNIFE gizmo. Resembling a shorter, less restrictive MRI machine, my stabilising helmet was locked into it. GAMMA KNIFE causes less collateral damage than standard invasive brain surgery, which requires tunneling through living brain to get to the tumour. Instead, 250 low-intensity ray-beams would be fired into my brain. Where they all intersected, a high-intensity hotspot would be created. The ‘knife’..

GAMMA KNIFE patients must be fully conscious while lab-coats fire hundreds of focussed gamma radiation beams into our heads – an understandably stress-inducing scenario – so this room was more soothing than the typical surgical suite. An illusory sky was painted on the ceiling. There was soft lighting, and my choice of music to be played as my noggin was irradiated. The previous patient had chosen country music, but I chose John Barry soundtracks (perhaps thinking of James Bond being lazer zapped by Goldfinger).

Some dandy drugs were applied to my mind, leaving me as philosophically happy at my predicament as Edward G Robinson in “Soylent Green”.

Cheston at the Thanatorium

I waited alone, as the surgical team retired to an area shielded from radiation and targeted their gamma beams by remote control. My procedure itself lasted just over an hour. The horror helmet was removed, revealing divots in my forehead (that had me resembling Hellboy after he tore his devil horns off). Then Julia picked me up in an Uber and took me home that same day. Outpatient brain surgery – amazing – followed by much needed sleep in my very own bed.

If Stan Lee or Stephen King wrote about a character whose brain was zapped with gamma radiation, they’d certainly gain supernatural powers (especially when the procedure happened at Halloween). Sadly, wearing the Magneto helmet gave me nothing more than a mild headache and blood leaks on my pillow.


Unlike regular surgery, gamma knife doesn’t cut the tumour out. Instead, it attempts to destroy its genetic material, so that it cannot grow. Best case scenario is that dead tissue might be eventually reabsorbed, but the evil greebly is still within my skull a year later. I’ve had two follow-up MRIs in 2022, the most recent a few weeks ago. Just today I had a consultation with the surgeon, to explain the scans.

Shaman reads my head giblets

It is strange to be shown an interactive MRI of the inside of my own head, as the surgeon flips through cross-sectional slices of my brain, like so much luncheon meat. He explained the signs in my head-spam, like a shaman reading portents in animal giblets. Thankfully, the surgeon was very positive about what he saw there. The tumour is shrinking. Compared to scans from a year ago, the most recent MRI shows a withering raisin, similar to the brain smudge that remains after the explosion in my thalamus in 2012. (The landscape of my brain begins to resemble London after the Blitz).

Hereafter, I must annually monitor the stowaway in my head with frequent scans. When inside the MRI machine I feel like a rotisserie chicken cringing inside a jet engine. Though uncomfortable, this is no more irksome than the periodic colonoscopies required at my age.

Some collateral damage is inevitable even with this ingenious technique. Radiation is rarely without side effects after all. My hearing loss thus far will be permanent, and may continue to decline, even if the tumour itself eventually dies completely. This is because radiation will have damaged nearby auditory nerves to some degree. Such damage will be too deep within my head for a standard hearing aid to fix, and would need a cochlear implant. Only time, more hearing tests & scans over the next few years will tell. But that is a health problem to deal with down the road. 

Ultimately, our own bodies will defeat all of us in the end.. Making any time that we do have with each other so incredibly precious. Every few years I’m viscerally reminded of that truth. But for now, 10 years after it first tried to kill me, I’m very grateful to have yet again thwarted my most rebellious organ’s latest attempt to take me out:

ME=2 vs MY BRAIN=0

Ha ha! Take that, you pouty grey goth!

50 thoughts on “My Most Rebellious Organ”

  1. Wow! Your ability to make harrowing personal indignities so funny and entertaining is unparalleled. Glad the result seems to be favorable.

  2. Wow, James, I agree with Steve, your ability to turn horror into humor is inspiring. My advice is we all just hang in there long enough until we can trade up for a complete new body, maybe we can then choose what super powers it comes with. Now there’s something to contemplate in a quite moment. No pun on your hearing loss intended. Best wishes my friend, and continue to take care of yourself. Stu.

  3. Had a squamous cell cancer removed (3 surgeries) 10 years ago followed by 6 weeks of radiation, which took hearing from that ear.
    Your incredible writing is the tops!

  4. Thanks for sharing your very scary but well written, educational and entertaining update on your latest brain adventures. Your perseverance and positive attitude is really inspiring. Keep it up cobber!

  5. Not a day goes by I ain’t thankful for people like you I was fortunate enough to encounter on the journey through this space circus . Keep kicking that brain in the brain testicles mate! Much love my nerd brother ! ❤️

  6. You continue to inspire and deal with whatever is thrown at you with matter of fact Zulu courage and dignity.
    I personally may have gone with ACDC’s thunderstruck over John Barry but you are far more experienced in these matters than me.

  7. Thunder Nerd getting powered up on gamma radiation sounds like a fantastic plan! Or a secret drink at a Tiki bar.

    This is a wonderful story Jamie!

    • Ha ha! Pity the HERO PARTY is no more, eh? I’d have a killer character, complete with radioactive origin story! But yeah, I have to get a mixologist pal to make a gamma/brain cocktail instead!
      Ha ha!

  8. Keep beating that brain, but make sure the writing part doesn’t get knackered, ok? Gloriously human as ever. Glad you’re ok.


    • I only started writing in earnest when I was no longer able to express myself via drawing, as I’d done my entire life till then. Since 2012 though, documenting my thoughts & impressions via words has given me a great deal of comfort.

      Thanks for reading & commenting JP!

  9. AAAAAAAAARRRRgh. HULK no like helmet!!!
    You sneaky bastard I had no idea.
    The “1970’s-sci=fi-future” is here… fimnally.
    Congratulations on your GAMMMA success.

  10. Schlocky 70’s Sci Fi tour through Jamie’s Brain gets 2 THUMBS UP! Now we must have the colonoscopy sequel – Damnation Alley? Black Hole?…. Dark Star! Gordon’s right, you are a sneaky bastard, but the punch line is the very welcome good news you have crushed the Demon Seed Time After Time because you are The Omega, man! Love ya buddy!

  11. Wow, James…I didn’t know you had these extra scares to deal with. You’ve a brave guy. We all are blown away by your steely resolve in coping with these traumatic events. Thanks for telling us about what’s going on with you as you’re often in our thoughts. Stay well, sounds like you might have another 150 years ahead of you!!

    Big hugs from London,
    Phil and Lisa

    • Hey Phil! Yeah the issue has been around for years but was only diagnosed late last year as a brain tumour. I am very lucky that UCSF is right here in town and they have the gamma knife tech, so nobody needed to poke at my brain with a scalpel to do the fix!

  12. When we worked together my job was to explore what was then the cutting edge of technology. You have far exceeded anyone in our orbit. You ARE on the cutting edge of technology, literally and figuratively. You have a certain blend of humor, courage, and perseverance that is your superpower. We are all in awe and admiration. Grateful you’re on this side of the procedure for your annual report.

    • Well, apart from being on the receiving edge of a gamma knife, I’m no more cutting edge than I was 30 years ago, when I worked with you, Jim! Still drawing in much the same way, though on a digital tablet most of the time. The humour of course was a prerequisite in being a cartoonist, and yes, it helps get me through much of my medical madness.

      Thanks for reading & commenting Jim!

  13. James, I can’t begin to imagine what it must be like to deal with the hand you’ve been dealt, but it looks like you’re dealing with it better than most of us mere mortals would. Don’t they say that laughter is the best medicine? Maybe those Gamma rays got you mad and did give you some supernatural powers? I’m trying to imagine that ‘Hero’ we filmed in high school turning green and his clothes getting ripped to shreds as his muscles bulged … but as you may be able to understand I’m having some difficulty with that! :)
    So glad to know that you are winning the fight. Obviously the Force is strong in this one!

    • Yes, laughter has certainly helped me a great deal. Not exactly medicine, in that it doesn’t fix the underlying problem at all, but it helps deal with the unfortunate realities of being chronically (and recurringly) sick. Thanks for commenting Peter!

  14. Jamie! Your humor, courage, and story continue to amaze and inspire. Here’s hoping for continued positive outcomes. Sharing your story raises awareness for your readers. It’s so important for everyone to be proactive about health. Thank you for keeping us educated along with you on this journey.

  15. Jamie you’ve been making me laugh out loud in person and on the page since our first encounter too many years ago to say out loud. And somehow you keep making me laugh through your trials that are so un-fucking fair to be happening to such a brilliant and talented human. If anybody can outmaneuver their own brain it’s you, but if you need a spare you’re welcome to mine; it isn’t getting used much these days so low mileage. Best of the best wishes to you and Julia old pal.

    • Outmanoeuvring my own brain! Yes, that’s exactly what it feels like. I have to constantly be on my guard, or the little grey fucker will garrotte me! “We’ve traced the calls and they’re coming from inside your skull! Get out of there NOW!!”

      Ha ha!

      Thanks for commenting Dale!

  16. Jamie this is an amazing story. If anyone can deal with the ups and downs it’s you but I’m sorry you have to… Jerry and I send you all love and good vibes. And Julia too. Hope you have a peaceful and relaxed Christmas. ❤️🤞❤️

  17. Hey James
    Incredible story, It must feel good to have that nasty tumour offa ya mind!
    ..cymbal crash…
    Sorry, what am I saying, it sounds serious. Another close call.
    They reckon we only use 10 percent of our brain anyway.
    Make you wonder what we do the the other half!
    ….snare drum….cow bell.

  18. Hi Jamie, It’s been a very long time! I had to make sure this was the same guy I knew from Colossal (“James” threw me off at first, but I could recognize you through the Hellraiser helmet.) Your story was pretty amazing, and scary. Thank you for sharing it and so glad to hear you are doing well. Best wishes to you and yours for 2023

  19. Incredible story Jamie! I can’t believe the amount of difficulties you’ve had to deal with over the years and I’m blown away with your humor and ability to write about it. You’re a brave and funny man!


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