My Life With a Brain Tumor

Can you imagine life with a mass growing inside your skull? Maria Ruiz, 17, lived through that experience. Here’s what she learned.

I lay inside the machine, surrounded by loud beeping, thumping, and whooshing noises. A padded coil around my face held my head in position. An overwhelming sense of fear rushed through my body. I knew something was wrong. I was 15 years old, and I was having a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) test to check my brain for tumors.

For several months, I’d been suffering migraine headaches that were so severe all I could do was sleep. I’d also been having periods of intense fatigue. At first, I wasn’t overly concerned about my symptoms, because my family has a history of migraines. But eventually my mother took me to see a neurologist, which is a doctor who specializes in the brain. The neurologist suggested the MRI. 

The morning after the MRI, I found my mom locked in the bathroom. When I asked her to let me in, she refused. Her voice trembled, and it sounded like she was holding back her tears. I could only hear whispers and mumbles until I finally made out the words “brain tumor.”

An Answer, and More Questions

Maria recovers in the hospital.

The MRI had revealed a tumor in an area of my brain called the motor cortex. The motor cortex is responsible for controlling your body’s movements like walking, dancing, eating, and writing. A tumor is an abnormal mass of cells that may keep growing unless it’s removed. My tumor was nestled in the part of the motor cortex that controls the movement of my right hand, which is my dominant hand.

As soon as my mom told me about the tumor, a million questions raced through my mind. How big was it? Was it cancer? Would it continue to grow? I hugged my mom and broke down in tears. All I could think to say was, “I’m scared.”

It felt like my entire world had crumbled right before my eyes. My dream since I was little has been to become a neurosurgeon, which is a surgeon who operates on the brain. When I was 6, I watched a movie about a neurosurgeon and immediately felt drawn to the profession. It was hard to believe I was facing the type of surgery I’d hoped to perform one day. 

A Difficult Choice

The following months were filled with frequent trips to the doctor. Finally, the surgeon told me I had a choice: I could have surgery immediately, or I could wait to see if my symptoms got worse. If I had surgery immediately, there was a possibility I would lose function in my hand. But if I waited, the tumor could continue to grow and turn into cancer. I felt like there was a chance my dreams could be crushed before I could even pursue them. 

After agonizing over what to do, I decided to hold off on surgery. At that point I was still able to attend my classes, participate in extracurricular activities, and maintain my GPA. I was almost able to forget about the tumor for a few months.

Maria studies for her dream of being a neurosurgeon.

No More Waiting

Then, three months later, things began falling apart. I started experiencing tremors. My hand would shake for a few seconds throughout the day. I took anti-seizure medication to stop the tremors, but the medication caused waves of fatigue, dizziness, and nausea. I felt like a zombie. I could no longer sit back and wait for a miracle or a disaster. I decided to have the surgery to remove the tumor. 

The reality of what I was doing didn’t hit me until the morning of the procedure. My mom couldn’t go farther into the hospital than the waiting room. I vividly remember walking myself to the operating room in tears. Two nurses walked with me, holding my hands and encouraging me. I felt like I was walking into impending doom. 

When I woke up from surgery, I tried to move my right arm. It didn’t move. I tried to wiggle my fingers. Nothing moved. My arm and hand were paralyzed. The doctors reassured me that I would be able to regain some function in my hand once the swelling in my brain went down. 

Despite the temporary paralysis of my hand, the surgery had been successful. The doctor had been able to remove the entire tumor. When they took the bandages off my head, I was shocked by how much hair they’d shaved off. I had a cut running from the top of my head to the top of my earlobe. 

MRIs before and after surgery. The circle shows the area of the tumor.

The Road Back to Normal

Recovery was tough. At times I felt relieved that the tumor was removed, but other days I felt frustrated by my inability to use my hand. Finally, after six months of occupational therapy, my life is relatively back to normal. My scar is barely noticeable, my hair has grown back, and my hand is functional again. 

When I look back at all I went through, I get spooked by the thought that I had abnormal cells infiltrating the most important organ of my body. I can’t help wondering, if I hadn’t complained of headaches, if my mom hadn’t noticed how often I was taking pain relievers, if the neurologist hadn’t performed the MRI scan, would my tumor have progressed to cancer? 

Learning to Speak Up

While it’s scary to think about what might have happened, I’m grateful for what I’ve learned. My experience taught me the importance of advocating for myself. Being a teenager going through a health crisis is difficult. You’re old enough to think for yourself, but legally you can’t make any decisions. Even so, your opinion matters. 

My advice to other kids in similar situations is to do research about your condition, and make sure your voice is heard. I always asked my doctors to speak directly to me because I was the patient. It was my body and my future we were talking about.

Overall, I feel proud of the way I dealt with the circumstances. I’m excited to put what I learned about the brain into practice as a neurosurgeon someday. And, because of my experience, I will always be patient and compassionate with my patients, no matter how old or young they are. 

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