The life changing nature of brain tumors : causes, symptoms, treatments and suggestions for coping
When anyone is diagnosed with a brain tumor, it can cause walls to come crashing down. A brain tumor of any form, starting within the brain or the central spinal cord, is inherently serious because it is invasive and impedes bodily functions at best; at worst, it can become life threatening. It can be debilitating to motor functions, attention and can invariably lead to an increased amount of stress.
My story : Coping with Pitutary Schwannomas
As as student studying for examinations and preparing for university education, the onset of headaches and stress would be nothing to be surprised by. Like anyone else in this situation, I was overwhelmed by the preparations for my GCE A level examinations and often experienced migraines, painful to the point that I could not lay on my bed to sleep. I had to resort to sleeping sitting up. Still, I did not attribute them to anything unusual. After all, headaches are a common symptom of stress.
After I received my examination results, the situation deteriorated somewhat. The mediocre examination performance came as no surprise because of all the headaches. I was satisfied studying Correspondence Law.
That is, until I began to find difficulties walking around. My grandmother lived a few houses away from mine and I would often walk over for visits. I suddenly found myself stumbling a little on these walks when my legs became numb. My mother thought it was just teenage angst and was even a little angry with me.
My grandmother became the savior of the day. She brought me to a sensible General Practitioner who noticed the signs of a brain tumor and to confirm the diagnosis, she referred me to a neurologist. I was diagnosed with two Pitutary Schwannomas after an MRI scan. MRI refers to Magnetic Resonance Imaging, a magnetic imaging technique used in radiology to capture a body’s structures in more detail. Pituitary Schwannomas are tumors that grow from the Pitutary Gland. They had been there in my brain for ten years prior to the diagnosis.
As a matter of course, I was operated on and the tumors removed. I had a bit of residual tumor which grew again. My consultant neurosurgeon recommended the Gamma Knife Radiosurgery, a non invasive laser surgery that attacks rogue lesions in the brain. I was flown all the way to Hong Kong for the treatment.
The treatment removed the tumors. After going through rounds of physiotherapy, I managed to finally walk again. There were the various effects of the tumor that I am still addressing after nineteen years. The neurosurgeon had hit the 5th nerve of the brain when he removed it, and this impeded my hearing, causing profound deafness in my right ear. The right side of my face is also numb. The removal caused problems with my memory and led to a diagnosis of ADHD or attention deficit disorder. I must add here that ADHD may not be a direct result of a brain tumor, so consultation with a physician is necessary.
All in all, I found myself having to restructure my life to cope with all the ‘by products” of the tumor. ADHD means that I have to take more care in organizing my life and schedule as well. I have also developed support networks with Brain Tumor support groups and had to alter my lifestyle in a way that lessens stress levels.
Causes of brain tumors
Causes of brain tumors
Damage to DNA of brain cells
Brain cells mutate when their DNA changes, which causes them to grow at an abnormal rate and turn into lesions clustered together in a part of the brain.
Cancer spreading from other areas of the body
Malignant tumors in other parts of the body may spread to the brain, especially at the later stages of cancer.
Anyone with known family history of cancer or brain tumors is likely to develop one.
Symptoms of a brain tumor
What are the signals of an unwanted resident lesion in the brain? These symptoms may seem like common instances and are often ignored.
This would be the symptom that can also indicate signs of stress. However, frequent headaches can be a sign of a more serious condition.
In some serious instances, there can be seizures which leave a sufferer trembling and often tired. Fortunately, my condition was diagnosed before becoming serious enough for me to experience these.
Sensory and movement loss
When the body starts to lose some of its basic motor functions, it is definitely a signal for further diagnosis. There were occasions when I could not even hold a spoon up without trembling, prior to the operations to remove the tumors.
A sufferer might become inexplicably tired. I definitely experienced these symptoms, which I simply attributed to work and stress.
Again, if there is tiredness for no reason, it warrants further diagnosis.
If a brain tumor presses on the nerve that controls hearing, it can cause hearing loss. In my case, it is profound deafness in the right ear.
Having a tumor anywhere, including the brain, is a life changing crossroad. Acceptance is but one stage of the arduous journey; coping with the effects of the condition even after surgery is yet another.
It comes as no surprise that this would cause some level of depression for suffers. This would be true for any illness.
Behavioral and Cognitive Changes
A sufferer would likely become hot tempered and impulsive as a result of the tumor. He may also experience cognitive changes, such as becoming more forgetful as a result of memory loss.
I became increasingly forgetful over the years, as the tumors grew. I still wonder how I managed to pass the examinations I spoke of!
There may be changes in hormones for some sufferers. For ladies, there may be problems with Progestorone and Estrogen levels that regulate monthly periods; men may have changes in Testosterone levels that can causes problems with male reproductive tissue in the testicles or prostate. I had Pitutary Schwannomas that caused a difficulty with monthly periods.
Treatment for brain tumors
This surgery is non invasive, laser surgery that targets rogue cells or lesions and removes them. A note that the Gamma Knife treatment I mentioned earlier gets rid of malignant tumors or lesions quickly. However, chances of regrowth are much higher as the cancer spreads.
Radiotherapy and Chemotherapy
Chemotherapy may be recommended for sufferers of malignant tumors. Radiotherapy or radiation oncology utilizes ionizing radiation to control cell growth. Chemotherapy is treatment using an antineoplastic drug or combination of drugs that are administered over a course of time.
Targeted Drug Therapy
This is therapy targeted at certain abnormalities within cancer cells. Drugs like Avastin are sometimes used to treat malignant brain tumors called glioblastomas. The drug, administered intravenously through a vein, cuts of blood supply too and kill rogue cells.
Afinitor is a drug used to treat people with a genetic disorder called tuberous sclerosis who develop brain tumors.Another drug, Everolimus, blocks an enzyme which contributes to the growth of cancer cells.
Coping with brain cancer
Suggestions for coping with the effects of a brain tumor
Coping with a brain tumor and its resulting effects is definitely no small task and requires an extensive support system. These are some of my suggestions, by no means exhaustive or imperative, for coping with this potentially negative condition.
If you suspect that you have a brain tumor, arrange to have Magnetic Resonance Imaging performed.
If you experience any of the symptoms I outlined above, do arrange for a session of Magnetic Resonance Imaging to be performed. This is a magnetic imaging process targeted at providing more details into the body’s structure. It allows most tumors to be visible on scans and films.
Consult a qualified neurologist and neurosurgeon
It is necessary in this situation to establish connections with qualified neurologists who specialize in the diagnosis and remediation of conditions that develop within the brain.
However, they do not perform surgery, so it is important to maintain contact with a neurosurgeon qualified to removed tumors within the brain.
As this is a life changing condition, it is wise to keep previous scans so as to get a second opinion at any time.
Regular exercise and physiotherapy
Regular exercise helps a sufferer to cope with any numbness present. I made it a point to walk for a short while every day so that I could regain some of the small motor skills I lost.
Exercising my facial muscles daily also helps me to cope with numbness.
Family support is important especially in understanding the effects that a brain tumor can have - the depression and memory loss is particularly relevant information family members should understand, for these issues are difficult for a sufferer to negotiate. They can also potentially compromise his or her career.
This, like any other condition, is difficult for any sufferer to himself understand and family or friends to empathize with. Discussions on coping mechanisms and relevant sources for dealing with this condition can be found in a brain tumor support network. I have joined the only brain tumor support group in Singapore and the regular information and discussions with fellow sufferers have helped me greatly. The National Brain Tumor Society is a site that helps sufferers to find a support group near them.
Finally, see life positively.
It is important for sufferers to realize that having a brain tumor is not a be all and end all for them. It is a mere restructuring of one’s lifestyle and seeing the possibilities ahead. Some adjustments have to be made, but a fulfilling, rich life can still be led.
All in all, being diagnosed with this condition can be life changing and debilitating - but only if the sufferer allows circumstances to govern his life.
Other health articles by Michelle Liew (midget 38)
- Post Traumatic Stress Disorder - a short story about coping with a harsh reality
What are the symptoms and treatment for PTSD? Often sufferers bear them quietly without letting their loved ones know about it until they manifest themselves. Here is a short story about how PTSD can affect a person over a long period of time.
- My daily tussles with adult ADHD - the symptoms,foibles, triumphs and advice for fellow sufferers
On the author's experience with ADHD - the symptoms, treatment, struggles and triumphs!