What I Did About My Brain Tumor
ONE moment I was sitting relaxed in a chair talking normally, and the next moment, they tell me, my face suddenly became distorted, flushed bright red and gradually faded to blue gray. My body stiffened rigidly as if drawn together with steel bands. Then I relaxed and my limbs began to shake. In about half a minute my face went chalky white. My breathing stopped, and I appeared to be dead.
Soon, however, breathing started again. Color returned and I seemed to be in a deep sleep. By the time the doctor arrived, consciousness was returning, but I was in agony. A convulsion—the first in my life—had struck. My pain was not from the convulsion itself, but from my own violent actions during the seizure. I had dislocated and broken my right arm and sustained compression fractures of the spine!
This was not to be my last encounter with the strange force that suddenly took over my body. Three weeks in the hospital somewhat repaired the broken arm, but I returned home only to suffer another convulsion. It was less severe than the first, but my injured arm was damaged again.
What was causing this alarming loss of bodily control to strike me without warning? To find out I visited a neurologist, a specialist in disorders of the brain and nervous system.
Tracing the Cause
First, a very thorough examination revealed no significant physical or mental abnormalities. Probing further, the neurologist made an EEG (electroencephalogram). About twenty electrically conductive pads or electrodes placed on selected parts of my skull picked up the extremely tiny electrical impulses there, and an electroencephalograph machine recorded them as waves on a moving paper. Normally, impulses occur at a constant frequency and are identical on both sides of the head. But unusually slow, fast or sharp waves may indicate that something is wrong. Abnormal electrical activity in just one area usually means that there is disease in that part of the brain.
This test revealed what the neurologist was looking for! The graph that emerged under the magnetic pen indicated abnormal activity in one part of my brain. I would have to take further tests to verify this, though, so three weeks later I entered a neurosurgical hospital. There I was quickly caught up in a whirl of examinations and tests. Two further EEGs confirmed that the abnormal activity was on the right side of my brain. This meant that the brain itself would have to be inspected for clues to the source of my mysterious seizures.
First, the doctor injected a radioactive compound into a vein on the back of my right hand. After a few minutes, this substance was making its way through the profusion of blood vessels in my brain, and a device related to the Geiger counter started scanning the radioactivity, mapping out its location on film. Abnormal concentrations may indicate damaging growths. This relatively harmless procedure revealed a slight shadow that proved we were getting closer to the culprit!
But still another test was required for positive identification. This one, called an angiogram, harbors some potential hazards. They fed a special dye into one of the two large arteries in my neck that go into the brain. It quickly filled the arteries of my brain, making them stand out clearly in X-ray photographs. But the dye can also cause some hallucinatory effects and possibly momentary blindness. In my case, the aftereffect was a feeling of wretchedness that was the worst part of the whole series of tests for me. I had to stay in bed for three days to recover.
Another hazardous test, called an air encephalogram, requires removing some of the fluid that constantly bathes the brain and replacing it with air. The air acts as a contrast medium to make the shape of the brain itself stand out clearly in X-ray photographs. Any distortions from the normal shape of the brain can then be noted.
But this test was not necessary in my case because the angiogram told the story. It plainly revealed a tumor just under the surface of my brain, and even indicated its size. The intruder was exposed! I felt numbed and shocked by the knowledge that a deadly growth was in my head—probably growing every day.
Although I had known for some months that there was something seriously wrong, the last thing I had suspected was a brain tumor. Why, I had never even had a headache in my life! But I learned later that tumors manifest themselves in different ways, depending on their type and location. To understand what had happened to me, I had to learn something about the brain itself.
A Marvelous Instrument
The approximately three pounds of gray matter in our heads contain about ten billion nerve cells called neurons—a number equal to two and a half times the earth’s present population! Various groups of neurons control different bodily tasks. When we move our arms, hands, legs or feet, for example, the command comes from the “motor strip” of neurons. Other neuron groups control sight, speech, reasoning, and so on. The way they work is marvelous.
Each neuron operates by firing a minute electrical charge at another preselected neuron, which, in turn, sends its own impulse to others. This may be compared to using your telephone to select another phone among many millions and quickly making a connection through many lines and relays. But neurons make connections among, not millions, but billions of others and they do so almost instantly. One estimate puts the daily activity of a brain at more than one hundred times the total of all the connections made by all the telephone exchanges in all the world put together!
Brain cells obviously do a good deal of work, and that requires fuel. In fact, though they compose only about 2 percent of our weight, our brains consume about 25 percent of all the oxygen that our bodies use—more than any other part—even at rest. To supply all this oxygen and other nutrients, about 20 percent of all the blood our heart pumps flows through our brains—about 375 gallons each day!
But even though we know that great amounts of energy are consumed to keep our mind working, exactly how the brain works is still not known. No one knows what makes these billions of neurons produce thoughts, emotions or dreams. A brain specialist commented recently on British television that today we know a great deal about the moon—men have even been there and back. But there was a time when it was thought to be a light shining through a hole in the sky. That, he said, is about the present level of our understanding of the brain and its workings.
The Brain Tumor
Now suppose something intrudes itself into this marvelous mechanism. What happens to its function? One intruder is a brain tumor, such as the one I had. Some tumors are cancerous, or malignant, and may grow very rapidly, causing death within just a few months. Others are slower growing and may be nonmalignant, or benign. But they can cause death too, unless treated.
How do brain tumors get started? It is not known for certain, though one type, called metastatic, springs from a cancer in another part of the body that sheds a few cells. The bloodstream carries them to the brain, where they establish a new colony.
Both kinds of tumors are composed of abnormal tissue that hungrily feeds on the blood supply to the brain. In fact, their appetite for blood has been known to exceed that of the brain itself! As they grow, they either destroy or push aside and damage surrounding neurons in the quest space, causing the brain to malfunction due to the damaged tissue or increased pressure.
Headaches, nausea and vomiting, dizziness, mental changes and convulsions may all be symptoms of a brain tumor, but none of these necessarily prove that one is present. For example, for no apparent reason, a person may have just one convulsive seizure in his whole life.
Such seizures or epileptic attacks occur when the brain has what might be called an “electrical storm.” A tumor or other disease may cause large masses of brain cells to discharge repeatedly in unison, creating much stronger electrical impulses than normal. Depending on the area affected, this may cause sudden contractions of the muscles so that the victim abruptly loses consciousness, experiences jerking movements of his body and stops breathing. Injuries or fatalities from such seizures are rare unless the brain discharges persist so that the person is in a continual state of seizure, called status epilepticus.
To Operate or Not
I now had a decision to make. Should I have the intruder removed? The first operation for removal of a brain tumor in modern times was performed in 1884. The patient did well at first, but he died about a month later from meningitis, an inflammation of the protective membranes that cover the brain. For some time after this, of the few operations that were performed, over half were fatal to the patients and only about a tenth of the patients were completely cured.
It was not until after the first world war that brain surgery became more frequent and successful, as surgeons learned more about the brain and developed new operating techniques. Of course, not all tumors are readily operable. In some cases only a portion of the tumor can be safely removed, and radiation therapy is often favored when malignant tumors reach deep into the brain.
But my doctor assured me that my tumor was almost certainly not malignant, and that it was in one of the best locations for successful removal, with good chances for a complete recovery. He strongly advised removal, but left the decision up to me. I knew of others with confirmed tumors who, out of fear, refused to undergo surgery, but my mind was made up. I was determined to have surgery. I wanted to do everything possible in order to return to a useful and normal life rather than experience a gradually declining state of health, leading to an early death.
Two days later the surgeon and his staff, ten persons in all, visited me. In discussing the proposed operation, I advised them that because of my Bible-based religious beliefs I wished them to use no blood. A few days later the surgeon agreed to perform the operation by using one of the alternatives to blood transfusions.
The Operation and After
During the operation he cut out a piece of my skull about four inches by two and a half inches so that the area where the tumor was located could be reached. After cutting a flap in the brain’s tough protective envelope, or dura mater, the underlying brain was exposed and the tumor was removed without complications. Then the dura mater was sewed together and the skull piece was replaced. After the operation I was in intensive care for only two days, and by the fifth day I was walking unaided. On the ninth day came the pleasure of dressing myself and being driven home by my wife.
But this did not end my experience altogether. Understandably the brain objects to intrusion by the surgeon’s knife. He cannot help but destroy some neurons and damage others when he removes the tumor. Swelling occurs. Damaged neurons need time to recover. Scarred tissue is left behind. Brain cells, unlike others, do not replace themselves when destroyed, but by some unexplained yet marvelous process, they can reestablish circuits in the area from which the tumor was removed. This takes time.
Though I seemed well on the way to recovery, six months after surgery I suffered three more convulsions. I learned that full recovery could take as long as three years, but at least I would recover. My capacity for reasoning was completely unimpaired, and my memory was as good as it had ever been.
I feel very grateful to the surgeon for his great skill, and grateful to sincere friends who visited me during my periods in the hospital. I am thankful, too, to be able to continue displaying my appreciation to the Creator who gave our bodies such a wonderful capacity for recovery. Indeed, my appreciation for life itself has increased. It is so good to be alive!—Contributed.
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