Listening to Your Body for Signs
- A mother of three from Wales received a brain tumor diagnosis after seeing her doctor for ringing in her ears and severe headaches. She underwent a 13-hour surgery to remove the tumor and had to relearn how to walk post-operation.
- Symptoms of brain tumors are often caused by increased pressure in the skull. Symptoms may include headache, nausea, vomiting, blurred vision, balance problems, personality or behavior changes, seizures, drowsiness or even comas. It is important to note, however, that these symptoms are not exclusive to brain tumors.
- 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.
With Jessica Jones from Wales, for example, it took her addressing the ringing in her ears, or tinnitus, to finally get to the correct diagnosis of acoustic neuroma – a noncancerous and usually slow-growing tumor that develops on the main (vestibular) nerve leading from your inner ear to your brain.Read More
“I didn’t actually get to see the GP because it was in the middle of the pandemic, but he prescribed me migraine tablets,” she told WalesOnline. “I told him I’d never had migraines in my life, but I took the tablets and the GP said if it doesn’t improve by the following Monday to come back.”
Unfortunately her condition did not improve.
“Over the weekend I’d continued to have really bad headaches, I was in horrendous pain with them, I felt a bit dizzy, I just didn’t feel right at all,” she said.
Just a few days later, Jones returned to her doctor and received a referral for a CT scan a couple weeks later. But she kept feeling worse during the wait and her blood pressure became abnormally high, so she was forced to go to the hospital for more tests. That’s when she was told she had a brain tumor.
“When you hear those words, ‘you’ve got a brain tumor’ – it was terrifying, I was absolutely petrified and I just burst into tears,” she said. “At that point I didn’t know if it was cancerous or not and how quickly it was growing, and all these things just rush through your head. I couldn’t really remember much he said after, I just heard the words ‘You’ve got a brain tumor,’ and, you know, I went to pieces.”
Doctors told her she would have surgery within six to eight weeks, but she said COVID-19-related delays caused her to end up waiting for six months. Finally, on January 20, 2021, she underwent a harrowing 13-hour operation to remove a section of her skull from behind her ear. Surgeons successfully removed most of the tumor, but they had to leave a small part that had grown around the facial nerve to avoid causing facial palsy, or weakness of the facial muscles.
Even still, the procedure took a huge toll. She spent two weeks in the hospital with no visitors and was left with single-sided deafness and vertigo.
“The hardest part about it all was not being able to see my family,” she said. “I Facetimed them as much as I possibly could, three to four times a day sometimes. When I came out of hospital though, my husband had bought the girls little nurses outfits and they were all dressed up ready to look after mammy, which was really lovely.”
She left the hospital having to use a walker after her health team worked to improve her eye and head movements and balance, but Jones has come a long way since then. Now, she’s pushing herself to do the 10,000 Steps a Day in February Challenge to raise money for brain tumor research.
“It may not seem like that big a challenge to some, but considering a year ago I was struggling to walk without a Zimmer frame, it’s a huge challenge for me,” she said. “I’m taking part in this challenge because without the years of medical research undertaken my outcome and life could have been so different.
“I will be eternally grateful to the neuro team and to all those who have undertaken research into brain tumors whose dedicated work has allowed me to carry on with my life. Every single doctor and nurse that has helped me on this journey has been absolutely amazing. I honestly do not have high enough praise for the way I was looked after.”
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. With an acoustic neuroma, for example, there can be very severe symptoms despite its noncancerous nature because the tumor develops on the main (vestibular) nerve leading from your inner ear to your brain and branches of this nerve directly influence your balance and hearing.
- Hearing loss, usually gradually worsening over months to years — although in rare cases sudden — and occurring on only one side or more severe on one side
- Ringing (tinnitus) in the affected ear – like in the case of Jones
- Unsteadiness or loss of balance
- Dizziness (vertigo)
- Facial numbness and weakness or loss of muscle movement
General Symptoms of Brain Tumors
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.
General symptoms may include the following:
- Blurred vision
- Balance problems
- Personality or behavior changes
- Drowsiness or even coma
But it is important to note that these symptoms are not exclusive to brain tumors. Still, you should always consult with your doctor if any health problems arise.
Advocating for Your Health
Whether you are currently battling cancer or worried that you might have it, it’s always important to advocate for your health. Cancer is an incredibly serious disease, and you have every right to insist that your doctors investigate any possible signs of cancer – a lesson we can all learn from Harrington, who, thankfully, trusted her gut and insisted on a biopsy.
“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 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.