Learning about Brain Tumors
- Matt Schlag, 43, discovered he had an anaplastic astrocytoma brain tumor after his boss asked him to get his ‘strange’ behaviors checked out by a professional. These behaviors included poor timekeeping, getting confused mid-conversation and even getting lost around the school where he worked.
- Anaplastic astrocytomas are rare malignant (cancerous) brain tumors. Commonly associated symptoms of anaplastic astrocytomas include headaches, lethargy or drowsiness, vomiting, changes in personality or mental status and, in some cases, seizures, vision problems and weakness of the arms and legs resulting in coordination difficulties.
- Being your own advocate can be key to coming to a correct cancer diagnosis and obtaining the best treatment possible while dealing with a diagnosis.
Symptoms for the 43-year-old father of two began when he was developing migraines during his studies to become a school teacher. From there, his symptoms only progressed to the point where he was having trouble keeping time, becoming confused during conversations and even getting lost around the school where he worked.Read More
That’s when his boss stepped in to help after taking note of his ‘strange’ behavior.
“My boss said, ‘You need to get this properly checked out because you’re behaving strangely,’ as my timekeeping had become so poor and I was getting lost not only in conversations but around the school building itself,” he said. “I was away with the fairies and I wasn’t my usual eloquent self. I was awkward in conversation and I wasn’t really engaging with people like I usually would.”
That conversation led to a crucial visit to the hospital where Schlag “insisted” on having a scan which revealed his anaplastic astrocytoma brain tumor in October 2019.
“Three days later, which happened to be my daughter’s second birthday, I underwent surgery,” he explained. “The operation went well, and I was so elated that when I woke up, I was singing ‘Aqua Azzura’ in Italian.
“I don’t know if it was the drugs I was on, but I just felt so happy because I’m fluent in Italian, and this meant that I hadn’t lost my language skills completely.”
From there, he had three months of radiotherapy and 12 months of chemotherapy. Sadly, however, the tumor showed growth during a checkup in August 2020. That’s when he underwent a second operation followed by sixth months of chemo.
But fast forward to today, and Schlag is doing well. He’s also determined to make a difference and raise money for brain tumor research. On September 11, he plans to embark on the 55-mile London to Brighton Cycle Ride to fundraise for the Brain Tumour Research charity based in the United Kingdom. If you’d like to donate to his efforts, you can visit his fundraising page here.
“I just wanted to make something positive out of what’s happened,” he said of his efforts. “It’s so important to raise money to help find a cure because, until a cure is found, there’s always the worry that the tumor can come back again.”
Understanding Brain Tumors
According to the American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO), brain tumors account for 85 to 90 percent of all primary central nervous system (CNS) tumors. The central nervous system consists of the brain and spinal cord and acts as the main “processing center” for the nervous system. Normal function of the brain and spinal cord can become difficult if there’s a tumor present that puts pressure on or spreads into nearby normal tissue.
There are many different types of brain and spinal cord tumors. Some are more likely to spread into nearby parts of the brain or spinal cord than others. Slow-growing tumors may be considered benign, but even these tumors can cause serious problems.
According to the National Organization for Rare Disorders, anaplastic astrocytomas are rare malignant (cancerous) brain tumors. Astrocytomas, generally speaking, develop from certain star-shaped brain cells called astrocytes. Grades I or II astrocytomas are nonmalignant and may be referred to as low-grade. Grades III and IV astrocytomas are malignant and may be referred to as high-grade astrocytomas. Anaplastic astrocytomas, like in the case of Matt Schlag, are grade III astrocytomas. Grade IV astrocytomas are known as glioblastoma multiforme. Lower grade astrocytomas can change into higher grade astrocytomas over time, so it’s important to catch these tumors as early as possible.
Symptoms of brain tumors, as a whole, are often caused by increased pressure in the skull. This pressure can be caused by tumor growth, swelling in the brain or blockage of cerebrospinal fluid (CSF), according to the American Cancer Society.
With anaplastic astrocytomas, specifically, commonly associated symptoms include:
- Lethargy or drowsiness
- Changes in personality or mental status.
- And, in some cases, seizures, vision problems, and weakness of the arms and legs resulting in coordination difficulties.
More specific symptoms of anaplastic astrocytomas relate to the specific area of brain where the tumor is located. Anaplastic astrocytomas may develop in the frontal, temporal, parietal and occipital lobes of the cerebrum (the front of the brain). If a tumor is in the frontal lobe, for example, you may experience memory problems, changes in personality and mood and paralysis (hemiplegia) on the side of the body opposite of the tumor. If the tumor is in the temporal lobe symptoms can include seizures, memory problems and problems with coordination and speech. If the anaplastic astrocytoma is in the parietal lobe, it can cause difficulties with communication through writing (agraphia), problems with fine motor skills or sensory abnormalities such as tingling or burning sensations (paresthesias). Lastly, tumors in the occipital lobe can lead to visual loss.
Advocating for Your Health
Whether you are currently battling a tumor or a cancer or you’re worried something is wrong, it’s always important to advocate for your health. Cancer as well as benign tumors are incredibly serious, and you have every right to insist that your doctors investigate any possible signs of cancer – a lesson we can all learn from Matt Schlag, who, thankfully, had a boss who stepped in to make sure he was addressing the symptoms of his malignant brain tumor.
“Every appointment you leave as a patient, there should be a plan for what the doc is going to do for you, and if that doesn’t work, what the next plan is,” Dr. Zuri Murrell, director of the Cedars-Sinai Colorectal Cancer Center, told SurvivorNet in a previous interview. “And I think that that’s totally fair. And me as a health professional – that’s what I do for all of my patients.”
In a previous interview with SurvivorNet, April Knowles explained how she became a breast cancer advocate after her doctor dismissed the lump in her breast as a side effect of her menstrual period. Unfortunately, that dismissal was a mistake. Knowles was diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer at age 39. She said the experience taught her the importance of listening to her body and speaking up when something doesn’t feel right.
“I wanted my doctor to like me,” she said. “I think women, especially young women, are really used to being dismissed by their doctors.”
Figuring out whether or not you actually have a tumor or cancer based on possible symptoms is critical because early detection may help with treatment and outcomes. Seeking multiple opinions is one way to ensure you’re getting the care and attention you need.
Another thing to remember is that not all doctors are in agreement. Recommendations for further testing or treatment options can vary, and sometimes it’s essential to talk with multiple medical professionals.