My Brain Tumor: A Blessing in Disguise

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Brooke Gilbertson, Psy. D., 32, is a therapist working at a substance abuse treatment facility in Santa Monica, Calif.

Two years ago, I thought I had a commonplace and benign condition, but it turned out to be one of the scarier health issues out there. A brain tumor is not what most people would call a blessing in disguise, but for me that diagnosis led to a whole new perspective on life, and the procedure to remove it led to healing in ways I couldn’t have imagined.

I began hearing what sounded almost like a cat scratching at the door in my right ear. I realized it might be my own pulse that I was perceiving, so I did some research online. Pulsatile tinnitus was a condition that came up and seemed fairly common. Signaled by hearing a sound in rhythm with your heartbeat and sometimes accompanied by symptoms like headaches, dizziness and loss of hearing, pulsatile tinnitus actually has several causes. Stress is one of the more common triggers, and since I was working full time, as well as going to graduate school, I thought this must be the most probable diagnosis. I made an appointment with an ear, nose and throat doctor (ENT) to get my symptoms checked out.

After examining me, the ENT doctor said he also believed pulsatile tinnitus was the likeliest cause for my condition, but wanted to cover our bases with an MRI scan. An MRI is a medical imaging technique used to scan for diseases or other hard-to-detect health issues. A week later, I went to the lab to have the test. I was the last patient in the doctor’s office that day, so when I came out of the appointment there was no one left and I assumed I would get the results the following week.

I grabbed my keys, got in my car and started driving home. But a few moments later my phone rang, and when I answered it was the doctor’s office. They asked, “Are you on your way to the emergency room?” Alarmed, I said that no, I was heading home. The nurse then told me the test results had revealed a large tumor in my brain that needed immediate attention.

The Size of a Baseball

I was stunned, but managed to stay calm. I turned around and drove back to the ER at Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica. When I was able to see the resident neurosurgeon, he showed me that the MRI revealed a tumor the size of a baseball right behind my right eye. This kind of tumor is called a meningioma, a slow-growing and usually benign tumor that forms membranes covering parts of the brain and spine.

Brooke Gilbertson pic2
Brooke Gilbertson, Psy. D., 32, is pictured with her medical team.

The neurosurgeon on staff at the hospital told me that since meningioma tumors grow slowly, my brain had time to accommodate it, which explained why I hadn’t had some of the more telltale symptoms. But he was really surprised I hadn’t yet had a seizure or stroke because of the tumor’s size.

Both the neurosurgeon and the fellow at the hospital assigned to my case showed such poise and professionalism, which helped me face this ordeal with courage, too. They took time to explain my diagnosis, what would happen in the surgery, and what the risks were. I had a lot of questions and they addressed each one patiently, compassionately and comprehensively. They even worked with me to get my surgery scheduled earlier. I had previously started the process to switch to a lower coverage health insurance plan, and my current plan would be ending in a month, so I needed to have the procedure before then.

Just four days after my diagnosis, the neurosurgeon fellow named Dr. Wally Sivakumar performed the 17-hour surgery to remove the brain tumor, with Dr. Garni Barkhoudarian assisting as the resident surgeon. The operation was a great success, and the doctors were able to remove the whole tumor without any damage to my body. A potential risk in the surgery was the loss of my eyesight because of where the tumor was located. Two years later, I have both my vision and my health, with hardly even a scar to evidence this ordeal took place.

Removing the Tumor Saved More Than My Life

As earth-shattering and scary as the meningioma diagnosis was, it also really made sense. For five years I hadn’t felt like myself, experiencing symptoms of depression without knowing why. I learned the tumor was wrapped around my frontal lobe, the part of the brain that deals with behavior and personality, and that this might have affected my mood. I had also been diagnosed with a condition called polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS), a hormonal disorder that causes women to have irregular menstrual cycles or to lose their period altogether. The gynecologist had suggested my PCOS could be linked to the symptoms of depression I had.

But after my surgery, I stopped taking the birth control prescribed to help regulate my period because there is a correlation between hormonal dysfunction and meningioma. A few months later, I began to get my period again every month. Testing showed I didn’t have PCOS. And just as amazingly, my whole demeanor has changed to be more like the optimistic, lighthearted person I used to be.

My diagnosis, as terrifying as it was, ultimately gave me a framework to understand a lot of what had been happening to me for the past several years. In that way, finding out I had a brain tumor—even one as advanced in size as mine was—was a great blessing and the first step toward holistic healing.

For someone else faced with health problems they don’t understand, I always recommend covering your bases and taking time to tell your doctor about everything–-both the mental and physical symptoms you’ve experienced. If the ENT hadn’t taken the extra step to recommend I get an MRI, I wouldn’t have found out I needed surgery for a much bigger issue. But because the doctors I worked with were so skilled and so responsive, I’m here today to share a renewed perspective on life, love, and relationships with those around me.

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THIS CONTENT DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. This content is provided for informational purposes and reflects the opinions of the author. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Always seek the advice of a qualified healthcare professional regarding your health. If you think you may have a medical emergency, contact your doctor immediately or call 911.
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