The grizzly detailsA little over two weeks ago, a tall Greek surgeon, with a name that literally means “to die” in Ancient Greek sawed a dessert plate-sized wedge of bone from the front of my head then cut and scraped a cancerous tumour from my right frontal lobe, leaving me with only a slither of normal brain on that side. Fifty years from now, what he has just done will be considered barbaric – just like the way ancient medicine men would use sharp flint tools to bore large holes in the skull of people suffering migraines and epilepsy to try to release sinister forces (an operation called trepanning), or like the cruel act of slicing off the frontal, thinking regions of the brain (frontal lobotomy) to treat serious mental health conditions – which was widely performed up until the 1950s when doctors realised it was turning patients into zombies. After half a day on a 21st century operating table, I awoke in a hospital ward with a paralyzed left hand. Thankfully I wasn’t a zombie and with intense concentration, I could just about persuade my clenched hand to open and close, but it would then be clamped shut again. In a moment, my future of writing seemed to have been thrown in the bin along with my excised brain. The book I have been writing would be forever unfinished.
Medical school training had taught me that nerves in the adult brain and spinal cord do not regenerate but are forever lost when damaged. Yet through many tears, I have already experienced that this wisdom does the human brain and body a great disservice. The bodies we have are far more incredible than we give them credit for:
Believing in the unbelievable
I didn’t believe the rehabilitation physiotherapists in the hospital when they told me two weeks ago that strength and dexterity would return if I just kept trying to wiggle and exercise my hand by squeezing balls of putty, and moving it in any way I could manage . Belligerence was the order of the day. Two and a half weeks ago, I couldn’t hold a fork or pick up a cup of water with my clay-like hand. Walking was a shaky stagger and I bumped into walls and doors. Like a toddler, I have had to relearn how to feed myself without spilling an entire meal down my lap and even be taught to look at people when they are talking to me (while not staring and remembering to blink!).
It’s time to grow up how we think about our brain
No longer do scientists say that the adult brain cannot regenerate. The memory and learning brain regions grow and rewire throughout life, based on how much we exercise our memory and learning. After brain injury, research now says that new brain cells do actually grow to replace what has been lost – even those in the frontal, thinking lobes. The excellent TED Talk below is a great explainer of how this was discovered and the mind’s incredible potential.
If you or someone you love one is suffering the after-effects of brain damage, then don’t stop working for a better future: science says that progress is always possible, even into old age. Without the support, encouragement and love of so many people, this article would have been locked in my mind and never turned into words. Our bodies are far more incredible than we gave them credit for:
A frightening and hope-filled future
The slow-growing ‘Grade 2 astrocytoma’ brain cancer that first set up camp inside my grey matter in 2008 has now mutated into an angrier, more brain-hungry ‘Grade 3’ growth, which makes my outlook far more ominous. Without hope, life is hell. I do not want to spend my life ticking off a bucket list of holidays and once-in-a-lifetime experiences but to carry on living the life I love. It is now a choice to either have hope for the future or to lie back and be a passenger. The storm cloud of a likely premature death chews up this hope. It would be easy to sprint away from this uncomfortable reality toward comforting lies. There are countless snake oil sellers ready to give a shot of hope –but history shows us that if it sounds too good to be true then it almost certainly is. According to statistics, my body should already be rotting in the ground. Statistics and life expectancies are simply no good for predicting an individual’s future health. I therefore plan to increase my odds of a long survival by seeking out the very best science-backed care without bankrupting my family and me (God bless the UK’s National Health Service for free choice of world-leading surgeons and treatment), At the same time I intend to go for the easy-wins for a longer life that do not make life miserable – such as eating healthily, keeping fit and choosing a positive, hopeful outlook on life. Radiotherapy and chemotherapy are due to start soon. Like surgery, these cancer treatments are as brutal as a scalpel: radiotherapy will blast tumour remnants with powerful X-ray beams (or similar radiation); chemotherapy will be one of a selection of injected or swallowed poisons which kill rapidly-growing and dividing cells. Chemotherapy works by killing cancer a bit faster than the patient andt is given in short bouts with a gap of a few days (termed a ‘cycle’) so that you kill as much of the cancer as possible without killing the person. If I have the energy, I hope to post updates on this exciting and terrifying journey. My dream is to keep going until I am grey and my wrinkled body is worn out before shuffling off this mortal coil, Expect a full progress update in 2029. And Perhaps by then, medicine will be able to kill cancer cells without knives, saws and poisons. And if my dreams do not come to pass, then I will have spent my days walking alongside those I love, completely free of regrets.
Rotating brain image: By Polygon data were generated by Life Science Databases(LSDB). – Polygon data are from BodyParts3D., CC BY-SA 2.1 jp, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=9499837