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..
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.
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”.
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.
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!