health

'If it weren't for a peanut M&M, I would never have discovered my brain tumour.'

Eight years ago I found a brain tumour by complete accident. This year, that brain tumour joined the party uninvited again – and helped me realise the profound effect it has had on my life.

It’s 8pm and I’ve finally put my kids to sleep for the night. Most days, I reflect fondly on the day: the cute things that happened, milestones reached, tantrums overcome. Today is no different, but lately, I find myself appreciating my family all the more because I have been reminded again of how fickle life can be.

I was unsure about writing this story because I know tough times are common. I haven’t suffered compared to many others, and I don’t feel a need for sympathy. Still, this is a cautionary tale of sorts, and I think that writing it down might help me process things better.

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In late 2010, I was 21. I had taken a gap year after school and was midway through a university degree. I needed a broader perspective and a chance to spread my wings, so I signed up for an exchange semester in the small university town of Tilburg, an hour outside of Amsterdam.

I have chosen to begin my story here for two reasons.

The first is because this time marked my final moments of absolute freedom from thinking about the events that would follow. Years later, I find it hard to reflect on because of how quickly it all disintegrated.

The second is due to a very specific moment. Weeks before leaving Tilburg, I bit into a Peanut M&M and felt something crack in my mouth. Without any initial pain, I paid no attention.

When I arrived home, I started experiencing pain in my upper gums so I headed to the dentist. To my dismay, I found no answers there.

With pain-induced sleepless nights, difficulty eating and a constant bad mood, my next call was to the GP. To my great relief, he helped to diagnose and treat a sinus infection.

I’m the type that chooses water and rest over medication for most ailments. I remember being with a friend, and upon realising the time, I insisted we eat something so I could take my next dose of Panadeine Forte before my earlier dose wore off.

I’d never had a sinus infection before and was beginning to sympathise with friends who had suffered them. I was also confused because my limited medical knowledge told me that sinus infections couldn’t possibly take so long to respond to antibiotics and require such high doses of pain killers.

By process of elimination, the GP believed my next step should be a neurologist.

Once I had passed the neurologist’s basic exam, she suggested a brain MRI – 40 minutes of claustrophobia and the sound of a truck backing up into my skull.

While waiting for my MRI results, the doctor sent me to an Ear Nose and Throat Specialist. He gave me steroids to try abate any inflammation in the area and they worked. Ecstatic that my pain had finally been relieved, I called the neurologist on the morning of my follow-up appointment to try and cancel.

The receptionist insisted that given Sydney’s terrible traffic, I get in the car and be on my way. I followed her instructions and turned up alone.

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I sat down as the doctor pulled out the scan report and calmly uttered words I never in my wildest dreams expected would be said to me: “The scan shows a brain tumour.”

At that moment, I want to say I felt alone or confused or lost, but I don’t think individual adjectives do it justice. I sat there feeling as if I was existing outside of my normal reality.

Soon after, I found myself in the office of Doctor Charlie Teo. He quickly educated me that it was very unlikely that my pain was being caused by the tumour.

Despite how much more significant having a brain tumour obviously is, I was still fixated on a reason for the agony I had been experiencing. This proved irritating to everyone around me who had found something far more sinister to be concerned about.

After seeking a number of second opinions, many of whom told me that the tumour was too difficult to remove, Dr Teo performed a craniotomy. He removed the entire tumour and it was a relatively easy recovery. I was also extremely fortunate that the biopsy revealed that the tumour was a grade 2 astrocytoma (not malignant.)

After I had recovered from surgery, the pain in my mouth and face persisted. On the advice of a friend, I went to see an endodontist, a specialised dentist who performs root canals. He placed an ice pick on the area the pain was radiating from and asked if I could feel it.

The answer was no. So, I needed a root canal because I cracked my tooth on that peanut M&M.

The emotion manifested in many forms. I passed through shock, horror and denial, and found humour in the situation as a way to handle my feelings.

I would joke to my family that all my negative attributes, like my poor ability to park a car and my lifelong incoordination, could now be blamed on the tumour. And when I wasn’t finding light in the situation, I was re-evaluating all my life decisions.

I felt like nothing I had been doing before was adequate. I broke up with my boyfriend and found a new career path, rather than realising how lucky I was to have so many family and friends rallying around me.

It took a great deal of time but I eventually convinced myself that the tumour had probably been there since I was born and was never coming back. It had never caused me any symptoms and was found by complete accident. I lived as if it had never arrived.

Lauren-resized
"I lived as if it had never arrived." Image: supplied.
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This year, when my daughter was eight weeks old, I had one of my regular follow-up scans. I had been neglecting to have one for 18 months, due to being pregnant and living overseas.

The tumour had grown rapidly and I had surgery the very next day.

Months later, I am still suffering from the shock of what happened, the minimal time I had to process the situation before surgery, and the fear that the tumour will return again. There’s not an hour that goes by when I don’t think about it and the lingering curse that it is on me and my family.

I have been informed by doctors that the tumour has a chance of recurring and I need to monitor it closely. I’m constantly faced with my own mortality while staring into the eyes of my greatest joys in life, my tiny children, who rely on my existence to survive.

It’s incredible to think about the fact that had I not cracked my tooth on that Peanut M&M, had the dentist understood what my problem was, or had the GP not sent me to see a neurologist, my life could have been completely different.

I often find myself longing for this life, free from the burden that this has caused me and pray that a cause and cure is determined soon.

Life’s lessons sometimes present themselves in mysterious ways. I learned a great deal about myself and life, I just wish there was an easier way to learn it.

Lauren Brender is a mum, freelance writer, speech and language pathologist, and coffee addict. If any part of this story resonated with you, she encourages you to get in touch with her.

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