Written by Molly Marco – Head for the Cure Ambassador and Anaplastic Astrocytoma Survivor
Malignant vs. Benign
As a malignant brain tumor patient, or in more understandable layman’s terms a brain cancer patient, I always struggled to find the same passion and empathy for benign brain tumor patients. It feels a bit, like, “Whatever. It’s NOT cancer, so it isn’t as deadly. It’s not the same and I’m jealous.”
I’m not entirely wrong…it’s not cancer, but I am also definitely not entirely correct. Like malignant tumors, it’s not simply a matter of type and grading. In fact, the tumor location is often just as critical if not more so than the designation of malignant or benign. An inoperable or inaccessible tumor can be just as deadly as a cancerous tumor.
All Brain Tumors Effect the Body
The whole body is important, and ideally, every single piece should be working properly. But we can often live a full life with broken bits and missing pieces. The brain itself is one of those necessary components in our body. We can function without a few pieces. We can manage depending on what pieces those are, and what they effect. Overall, all types of brain tumors are tricky and affect each person in different ways.
It’s hard for the folks without these issues to understand. A person in a wheelchair due to the side effects of a brain tumor may not necessarily have an aggressive malignant brain tumor such as a glioblastoma. Sometimes it’s a low-grade jerk in a nasty location. In contrast, the casual observer wouldn’t even notice that I have a high-grade malignant tumor because of the tumor location unless I was actively seizing and falling off a bar stool.
There are also sleeper tumors such as a Meningioma, which is for the most part a benign tumor to my knowledge. But a lot of folks won’t even know they are living with this tumor until it has grown quite large becoming deadly. If the tumor is growing in an area that makes it inoperable, there isn’t much to be done beyond radiation.
The good news is that if someone has a benign tumor in an operable location, has a good neurosurgeon, and participates in necessary rehab, they’ll likely get back to their normal lives. For example, an acoustic neuroma is another benign tumor that grows on the nerve used for balance and hearing. They can grow quite large. It can cause loss of hearing, tinnitus, feeling of having what I call “the spins” (dizziness), or blurred vision.
Recovery is Different for Everyone
My grandma had an acoustic neuroma behind one of her ears when she was in her 60s in the 1970s. She had a successful surgery and while the doctors told her it would be weeks for her recovery, she was on a plane and traveling to Argentina just two weeks later. However, some acoustic neuroma patients may need more rehab depending on size and location of the tumor. Kelly Stafford, wife of Detroit Lions’ Matthew Stafford, was diagnosed recently with the same tumor, and had a 12 hour surgery. Recovery takes some time. Her balance was off. She still had to deal with dizziness. It’s not easy for anyone to go through brain tumor treatments, and no two patient’s treatments are the exact same.
It’s important to understand that while not all brain tumors are cancer, that doesn’t make them a fun walk in the park in comparison.
There are No Good Tumors
I remember learning that my brain tumor was a “middle of the road” malignant tumor, an anaplastic astrocytoma. There’s no real fix, and “Middle of the road” still stinks. It’s supposed to come back and get me at some point, either as itself as a recurrence or heightened as a GBM. I learned that a lot of other patients are weirdly told similar things like, “You have the good one”, if they have a low-grade Oligodendroglioma. What’s weird is that I know patients with “the bad one”, a GBM, who have outlived patients with “the good one” or the “middle of the road” tumors. There is no “good” brain tumor. Benign brain tumors aren’t “the good kind.” I mean, if I had to pick, I’d still rather have a non-terminal, fully operable, benign brain tumor over a terminal malignant one.
ALL brain tumors suck in different ways. They take up space they don’t own. I don’t like it. You shouldn’t either.