Brain cancer: Walking with hearts outstretched


I said yesterday that our final hurdle before going home was a brain MRI to check on the glioblastoma (grade 4 cancerous brain tumor) that Richard’s neurosurgery team attempted to remove from his right temporal lobe last August.

At the oncology appointment this morning, we learned what that MRI showed. It was not, as Dr. Klein said, “the news we were all hoping for.”

In sum: the tumor’s back. Dr. Klein had already alerted neurosurgery, and they’ll let her know if they think it’s operable, but the chances are slim that it could be removed without significant brain damage. (As his neurosurgeon, Dr. Brega, said at that August surgery, “none of your brain is ‘spare.'”)

Dr. Klein also had already talked to Dr. Chen, the radiation oncologist who did Richard’s radiation treatments in the winter of 2009/2010. Dr. Chen thinks he might be able to employ focused treatments to slow the tumor down, but he needs to see a more detailed MRI to be sure. So we’ll head back to Denver soon–perhaps next week–for that MRI and a consult with Dr. Chen.

We knew the tumor removed last August was a glioblastoma; we knew the odds weren’t good. But here he is, healthy in all other respects, recovering well from the brain compression crises and the two recent brain surgeries.

So… Dr. Klein suggested that we get serious about making sure we’re clear about what we want to do and what our choices will be. Because, honestly, he may not have much time. Not that she doesn’t have faith in him–and by extension us, because we are in this together. “Miracles can happen,” she said. “I’ve seen some.”

A miracle is what we’re hoping for. We’re also going to investigate other treatment possibilities. There’s one approach that uses the DNA from the tumor to make an individual vaccine with the idea of spurring Richard’s immune system to eliminate the cancer cells. It requires having a live sample of Richard’s tumor tissue, which would mean asking his neurosurgery team if they feel okay about opening his skull again to get a sample. Soon.

In the meantime, we’re going to focus our days on health and creativity: making sure he’s got what he needs to resume his sculpture practice whenever he feels up to it, and doing what we can to support his health on all levels, physical, mental, emotional and spiritual. I’ll prepare lots of fresh food; we’ll resume our daily yoga and walks. We’ll read and talk and watch the light change on the peaks. We’ll hold hands; we’ll snuggle. (Such touch spurs your brain’s production of oxytocin, often called the “cuddle” hormone; it’s essential to overall health and immune system functioning.)

After our talk, Dr. Klein gave us each a hug. Then we drove across Denver to help my dad, who is sorting and packing in preparation for moving to a smaller apartment. He absorbed the news thoughtfully, and offered to do anything he could to help. “Call anytime you need to talk,” he said. Later, when I relayed the news to my brother, he said, “Think about what you need to strengthen the circle around you.” My family is wonderful.


After we left my dad’s, we hit the road for home, holding hands. We talked about what we need to do to support each other, cried now and then, and reminded each other of what’s important: living in a way that respects and honors the love we share and that acknowledges the perils of this journey we never imagined we’d be on. (Along the drive, we saw some of the Mt. Evans bighorn sheep herd grazing just off the highway, an unexpected treat.)

The bottom line: We’re resolved to live happily, whatever comes. Which does not mean denying the grief and pain and anger and sheer exhaustion. It means remembering to not let those blot out the grace notes–like those bighorn sheep–the joy of simply being able, as Richard puts it, “to walk together on the surface of this remarkable planet.”

So here we go. Together as long as that’s possible. In love with each other and with life, wherever it takes us.

Deep breath. Hands clasped. Walking with hearts outstretched…