Here’s where I need to start. I feel very loved and lucky and I have a tremendous amount to be thankful for at this very moment in my life. I am alive and I am feeling better each and every day. When it come’s down to it, that’s all that really matters.
On June 18, 2019 I had a brain tumor. Today I do not.
I first noticed what turned out to be my brain tumor about 7 years ago. I was training for my second LA Marathon when I noticed a slight swelling on the right temple of my face. The swelling was only faintly noticeable, aligned with my right temple muscle running from the forehead just to the top of my right cheek. The swelling was pretty consistent. It didn’t come and go but it was even and did change slightly in size depending what I ate that day or on what my training pattern might have been. But none of it was all that profoundly different.
Over the years it grew more and more and changed less frequently. I pointed it out to my wife and started to get a little concerned. Finally, about 3 and 1/2 years ago, I went to my doctor to have him take a look at it. I was hoping for an MRI but he said it was an overdeveloped temple muscle caused by teeth grinding and chewing in my sleep. He recommended I see my dentist for a mouthpiece, which I did.
My dentist made the mouthpiece but insisted there was no dental evidence I was grinding my teeth at night or biting down hard. I still wore the mouthpiece for three some years and, sure enough, it did nothing. Not only didn’t the swelling shrink but the mass continued to visibly grow. As it grew I became more aware and even self-conscious about it as something that was “other” or foreign to me.
I grew more concerned. I noticed it more and I was sure people in my life (and work life) noticed it, too. After all, I work with a bunch of kids who notice the little things, like slight growths or the kinds of imperfections we associate with age that we don’t see all that often in our youth.
Last fall my ophthalmologist saw it and he finally ordered an MRI. Turned out it wasn’t the muscle but an actual foreign growth. I called it my UFG——my uninvited fucking growth. My UFG concerned my ophthalmologist and the radiologist who read my film. It looked like a tumor, one that had some origin in my brain. Luckily, one of my best friends is also a radiologist and I had him take a look at my MRI before I had any formal sit-down with a doctor to talk about next steps. It didn’t look good, but it also didn’t look like we had a 100% sure reading on what it was we were looking at.
Since UFG was on the side of my face we could do a biopsy of him and start to get some sense of what he was before cutting into my skull. Last January that biopsy told us UFG was not cancer but it also identified it as a meningioma. For those that don’t know a meningioma is a tumor that grows from the lining of the brain. That’s right: I had a brain tumor but one that decided to gentrify my face. It started in my brain but grew through the skull and took over that temple muscle before spreading to through the cranium.
It took about two months for us to learn I had a tumor and to get test results telling us it wasn’t a fatal or aggressive form of cancer. That two months was a hard time for Melinda (my wife) and me. We had to confront the possibility of the worst, which is not a pretty thing when you have 3 little ones. We survived it, sanity and love in tact. We also had the benefit of medical professionals moving us toward a medical solution for my UFG.
That solution was surgical. I had a team of surgeons, one to focus on the outer cranium parts of my UFG and a neurosurgeon to focus on the UFG origin story on the lining of my brain. Luckily, since UFG had been such a colonizer, I had no real “traditional” symptoms of a brain tumor. No headaches or no compromised brain functions. I had an unsightly bump that kind of gave me a sore jaw and swollen pressure on the right side of my face, but all that’s not too bad considering the cause.
I entered Kaiser’s Kramer Medical Center in Anaheim on June 17 to get it taken out. It was a several step process. External UFG gentrified my cheek and jaw. He was close to a cluster of blood vessels and incompatible with our goal of minimizing bleeding and the prospect of a transfusion. So step one was going up my main artery like an angioplasty in order to inject some dye in those vessels and give them a little embolism. This would make them more visible (and hence more avoidable) while also making them less bloody when they were cut.
Phase two was extraction. My neurosurgeon’s plan (he is a pretty amazing guy, the kind you’d expect to do such a job) was to saw into my skull and remove UFG from my brain lining. That’s where UFG started. He was like a tail along my right lobe heading through a patch of skull that ended in my temporal muscle. The plan was to remove the “tail” and, to be safe, cut away about 2cm of brain lining surrounding it. That would also entail removing the patch of skull UFG passed through since, in passage, it became tumorized, too. The plan was to replace the patch of skull with titanium.
When Dr. Amazing got in there he learned that UFG had been more cranially aggressive than originally thought. First, a 2cm lining removal took us too close to a vital (life or death) artery near where the lobes meet, so he kept a conservative distance to make sure I stayed alive (yeah!!) which also may have left some UFG at the cellular level. UFG also turned out to be doing more than resting on my lining. He was also squatting on my brain. He was an easy removal but still, fucker was living rent free on my brain.
The other part of extraction was lead by my head/neck surgeon, a 30 year veteran of the meningioma game. His plan was to cut in to my head, pull down my face like a John Woo movie, and remove UFG from my temporal muscle and cheek area. We expected the UFG already colonized my temporal muscle and so its removal there was to be expected. He’d rebuild the destroyed and colonized muscle with titanium mesh so it would balance cosmetically with my left temple. The MRI suggested it was well beneath the cheek bone too, so the plan was to remove that sliver of bone temporarily to safely extract UFG and then rebolt the cheek bone into my skull.
When he got in there he learned UFG had been pretty aggressive there too. It had eaten up my temporal muscle and did much the same to my cheek bone. So a minor plan alteration was called for and the kind doctor replaced my cheek bone with titanium instead of reinserting the tumorized bone.
A week ago, all this happened. I came out of surgery alive and with a pretty good prognosis. They said the best case scenario for me would be about 3-5 days in the hospital and then about 1-2 months of rest and recovery to let the trauma of surgery return my swollen face back to normal. Sure enough, I came home three days after surgery. I have a series of follow-up appointments that will inform where we go from here in terms of treatment but, the most important thing I have is the love and concern and friendship of a grip of people, all of whom have helped my recovery with kind notes, plants and flowers, food, and consistent thoughts. The best part has been feeling——on a daily basis——how this is more than an individual act of healing and, instead, a nurturing group process.
So thanks. I thank you if you’re one of those people who care about me and who’s shared that caring in any kind of way. I thank you for the road ahead, too, one that’s going to take time and lots more of the love I’m using now over the weeks and months ahead. I feel lucky to have you in my life and the feeling is 100% mutual.