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The will to live: A young brain tumor survivor shares her journey

Meg Keating with her neurosurgeon James Chandler, MD, co-director of Northwestern Brain Tumor Institute

In recognition of May being National Brain Tumor Awareness Month, Meg Keating, a 31-year-old who was diagnosed with brain cancer more than four years ago, has agreed to share her inspiring story. Below is Meg’s journey in her own words.

My brain tumor journey began December 7, 2007, when after having a seizure while out to lunch with coworkers, I was taken to Northwestern Memorial by paramedics. After having scans and tests, it was determined I had a brain tumor. I spent the weekend in the hospital and was scheduled to return for a craniotomy (brain surgery to remove the tumor) a few days later.  Insurance issues almost forced me to move my care to another hospital, but my awesome boss and the amazing Dr. Cybulski and his team, which included the amazing Dr. James Chandler (who I call my rock star of a neurosurgeon, because it's true), worked to ensure I could stay at Northwestern Memorial, where I felt I was in the best hands for my situation, and still receive world-class care today!

My surgery was on Thursday, December 13. Most of my tumor was able to be removed and I was up and about in a day and back home on Sunday.  I found out about a week later that the tumor was a GBM-IV, which meant it was cancerous, advanced, and aggressive – such a shock for an otherwise healthy 28 year old with no previous symptoms.  I recovered from surgery for seven weeks and began daily chemo medication and 5-days-a-week radiation treatments.  Because I had a seizure, I was unable to drive and had to adjust to being chauffeured around by my parents, who were wonderful. They are both retired and luckily able to take care of me as I had recently moved back home to save money.  It is tough enough being a young adult with a cancer diagnosis, but transitioning from a completely independent person to having to rely on others for many things is an additional challenge.  

I was able to regain some semblance of normalcy by returning to work part time in the mornings, having radiation at Northwestern Memorial around lunchtime, and heading home to rest after that.  I ended up having to take some time off work again a few months later, as the higher dose of chemo caused my white blood cell counts to plummet and I was at risk for contracting an illness that could jeopardize my health further.  Ending my chemo cycles early concerned my doctors because staying on the chemo helps to inhibit tumor growth, and my MRIs still showed "something" – whether  it was dead tumor tissue, a shadow, or tumor remaining from my surgery, no one could say. The decision was made for me to have Gamma Knife Radiosurgery, which is not invasive, and basically more radiation delivered to a small, precise portion of your brain. Not painful, just makes for a long day of wearing a metal contraption affixed to your face/head – think Man in the Iron Mask!

I learned the importance of listening to one's body, getting plenty of rest (chemo and radiation can leave you tired like no other!), minimizing risk of contracting germs and illnesses, and basically practicing good self care. I had always considered myself to live a fairly healthy lifestyle, but these experiences really stressed to me how fragile yet resilient our bodies can be. It was a wake-up call to be present, strive to live each day to its fullest and work to be the healthiest I can be.  A friend convinced me that if I could "beat" stage 4 brain cancer then I could do anything...which is how this non-runner ended up doing the 2009 Chicago Marathon.  My goals were twofold: to have fun and to finish.  I joined a training group and signed up to fund raise for brain tumor research through the American Brain Tumor Association (ABTA). I also told everyone I knew my marathon plans, so I would be accountable and quitting would not be an option! My mission was accomplished on October 11, 2009, on a cool, sunny day (ideal marathon running weather!). I made my way through the streets of Chicago enjoying the support of friends, family, and strangers in the cheering crowds. I smiled pretty much the whole way, and while I could never say it was easy, each step and every mile felt like a little victory in my personal war against cancer which was incredibly empowering.  I walked a lot, but I finished – in enough time to have my name make it in the paper the next day, and before the roads re-opened to traffic!

More than four years later, I still have to work on finding the energy to get out for that run, or to go do strength training. But, every 4 months when I have my check up MRIs and I get a great report, I am reminded that I am so blessed to be here and to not waste a single minute of my day.  I signed up over a year ago to be a "Mentor Angel" with the Imerman Angels program, which provides one-on-one support to newly diagnosed cancer fighters (or their families/caregivers) with a survivor of the same type of cancer.  We are matched by gender and age, when possible, and I currently mentor four women across the US and Canada. I believe I went through this journey for a reason and there is a purpose to my surviving and thriving today. I am reminded, also of how lucky I am to have access to world-class medical care and support, living in a city like Chicago.  Sadly, many of the women I have met through Imerman Angels  have had very different experiences from the nurturing care I received at Northwestern Memorial and the Northwestern Brain Tumor Institute.

I look forward to every May – Brain Tumor Awareness Month – as yet another celebration of survivorship, and a chance to give hope to newly-diagnosed fighters that there is life after a brain tumor/brain cancer diagnosis!  I will walk this Saturday, May 12, 2012 with hundreds of other survivors, caregivers, supporters and our friends and families in support of brain tumor research and funding for finding a cure and providing supportive patient care. Here's to many happy, healthy years for us all and to finding a cure for the over 600,000 people living in the United States with this terrible disease!

For more information on brain tumors, visit the Northwestern Brain Tumor Institute website.

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