17 March 2013

Lessons from My Brain Tumor, part 3

If you missed Part 1 or Part 2 of my brain tumor story, you might want to click the links to catch up before reading this part.

In my initial visit with the neurologist (right after they found my tumor), she explained that because of its location in the brain stem, the least risky course of treatment for my tumor was radiation. Even a biopsy could be troublesome, since there isn’t much wiggle room in the brain stem, and a wrong move with that biopsy needle could cause more problems than it was worth.

Because we’re in the military, I didn’t get to choose my treatment center, unless I wanted to pay for it all on my own (and yeah, there’s no way you can pay for something like this without insurance)… The two available options for our area were Travis AFB and the UC Davis Cancer Center in Sacramento, California. Travis AFB would have been Tricare’s first choice for treatment (Tricare is the military insurance plan), even though it was a farther drive for us, because it was a military facility (thus, it was less expensive for the military to pay for), but Travis AFB had a full patient load, and they couldn’t fit me in. So I was referred to UC Davis. And the UC Davis Cancer Center just happens to be one of the top facilities in the country for treating brain tumors (while there, I met people who had come from all over for treatment).

You might call it luck or coincidence. I firmly believe that it was a case of the Lord looking out for me. I know that we weren’t just coincidentally in the right place at the right time for me to get the best treatment possible. We were there by Divine design. Heck, when we got the orders to take us to Beale AFB, everyone in my husband’s chain of command was certain that the orders were a mistake. “You’re a Korean linguist, and they don’t have a mission at Beale for Korean linguists. You’re not supposed to be going there!” And from a military standpoint, they were 100% right. There was no reason for my husband to be at Beale AFB as a Korean linguist. But it was the best place in the world for us to be stationed when my tumor was discovered.

And so I began radiation treatments at the UC Davis Cancer Center.

The first step in the treatment was to create a mask, custom molded to my head, which would hold my head in the exact same position every single day, so they could guarantee that they were shooting the pinpoint radiation into the same place every time.
The mask was in two pieces, molded to fit my head completely.

Front part of the mask - the mesh on the nose piece broke in our recent move.
Imagine it with the mesh filling in that hole too.

I had to lie perfectly still, while they pressed a warm, pliable, plastic mesh around my head. And I had to stay perfectly still while the plastic hardened into place. Because the mask had to be perfect. To ensure that the treatments would be targeted properly, they couldn’t allow for even a millimeter of wiggle room.

Did I mention that I’m claustrophobic?

I got through the agonizing process with my husband and my mother by my sides, each holding one of my hands and talking me through what seemed like hours (but was probably closer to five minutes) while I waited for the plastic to harden and fought the rising panic attack.

But that was the easy part.

When I started my radiation treatments the next Monday, no one could be in the room with me (because of the high levels of radiation being shot through the room). The radiation technicians would take me into the room, where they would fit the mask to my face and bolt it to the table. Then, they would go into the next room, where they could watch me through a window and talk to me over the speakers while the machine rotated around my head, shooting pinpoints of radiation into the marked coordinates for fifteen minutes.
Going into the radiation treatment room. Notice the big, thick, heavy door that kept radiation from leaking out?

About every third day, by the time the technicians had the mask bolted to the table, I was in a full-blown panic attack, and they had to rush back in to take the mask off, so I could sit up and breathe and calm myself down before we could proceed. And not once did they complain or grumble or look down on me for being a big baby. The doctors, technicians and nurses at the UC Davis Cancer Center were the most amazing group of medical professionals I’ve ever had the pleasure of dealing with. I felt like we were a team, working together for a common goal.
Me with the doctor and one of the lab techs (and the machine) on my last day of radiation treatments!
Somewhere, I have a picture of me bolted to the table with the mask, but I couldn't find it today.

And as scary as the treatments were, I knew that it was a necessary part of my path to recovery. My mom and husband couldn’t stand by my sides to hold my hands through the radiation treatments, like they did during the creation of the mask, but I never felt like I was alone.

Because I wasn’t.

My grandfather, who died when I was in high school, stood by my side every single day as I was trapped on that table. I could feel his presence, and I could see him standing there, close enough that I could reach out and take his hand if I got too scared. But just knowing that he was there for me made it all okay. And every time I felt like I couldn’t do it anymore, every time that I started to panic in the middle of the treatment, Grandpa would take a step closer and tell me that everything was all right. And it was.

That’s the fourth lesson I learned from this brain tumor: I’m never alone! The Lord loves me enough to put me in the right place at the right time to fight the scariest ordeal I’ll ever undergo. And I have family and friends, both on Earth and in Heaven, who will always be there to love and support me when I don’t have enough strength to get through on my own. Life is not a solitary journey. It was never meant to be. And we’re stronger together than we could ever hope to be alone.

Read part four of my Brain Tumor Story


Catch up on the story by reading Part One and Part Two.


  1. Congratulations on making it through the treatments! It seems like having your head bolted to the table would freak most people out. So, you're probably not alone in that either.

    Is there another part to this story next week? Are you okay now? I hope so!

    1. Yes, there is more to the story. At least two more parts (next week and the week after). I still have the brain surgery and all of the after-effects to talk about. I'll make sure to keep you posted! <3