During these turbulent times, I decided to write about my experiences with a brain tumor in order to share insights into dealing with adversity and building resilience and positivity during challenging times.
I was diagnosed with a brain tumor three and a half years ago. After experiencing some vision changes and headaches, I had an eye exam, which led to a brain MRI. In short order, I was meeting with a top neurosurgeon and orbital surgeon and found myself scheduled for a craniotomy at Columbia Presbyterian hospital in NYC. Thankfully, my brain tumor was diagnosed as benign, but its location was problematic, as it was pressing on my optic nerve and pushing against my right frontal lobe.
The four weeks from diagnosis to surgery were short but challenging as I struggled to figure out my new normal. What do I tell the kids? How do I go about my daily life? What do I say to friends and family? I was rethinking my sense of purpose and focus each day as I tried to manage fears and frustrations.
On the morning of the surgery I found it hard to stay calm as everything became very real and overwhelming. While the surgery was largely successful, the surgeons were unable to remove all of the tumor because it is intertwined with my optic nerve. I spent five days in the hospital, followed by a slow recovery at home with both mind and body challenges. I continue to be immensely grateful for my family and community who helped me during this time. My parents came to live with us for a month, and local friends brought over meal deliveries. Every bit of support and care helped me remember that I was not alone and had a village to lean on.
There were ups and downs in my recovery journey. The physical pain lasted for weeks, followed by heavy fatigue months afterwards. The mental stress was equally hard as I battled frustration as to why this was happening to me and felt sorry for myself.
After a year of monitoring, my MRI results showed the tumor growing again and heading towards important inner brain structures. This new reality felt like a harsh setback, even though the recommended radiation would be much more manageable than more surgery.
I began six weeks of radiation treatment last year, surrounded each morning by fellow patients who were receiving chemo and radiation. I spent four hours a day driving to and from these appointments, reflecting on how we deal with adversity in life and build resilience to keep moving forward.
Below are some takeaways I discovered. They can be applied to personal and professional challenges, big and small, or whatever crazy new normal you are dealing with.
- Educating yourself and gathering information are essential, but there are limits. When presented with a challenge, it’s important to take time to raise your awareness and understanding but also to maintain a degree of restraint. Know when to step away and take a break from all the googling.
- Accept that your situation is hard and acknowledge feelings of sadness or hardship before moving forward. It’s okay to feel frustration in tough times; it’s normal. The key is not to dwell or get caught up in what you can’t control. Allow those moments of tears, reflection, quiet, sorrow or exasperation, and then find a way to shift gears. You may feel anxious about what’s ahead, but there are things you can do in the present, such as prepare a healthy meal, check in with your team, or adjust your priorities at work. Try to respond in a way that sets a more productive and positive tone for you and those around you.
- Embrace the new perspective and explore small changes. Maybe the challenge has created a new lens through which to view the world around you. What are you learning about your daily life, your family, your work rhythms, or what’s important to you or your business? What is this new lens showing you about your sense of purpose? About your schedule, family time, and connections with friends? About your ability to think creatively or innovatively about your business strategy and approach? You may still be in crisis mode from an operational perspective, but what are you noticing about how you manage it all?
- Reach out and connect. We know it’s important to have a good support system, but that requires effort. It’s easy to lose the energy and motivation needed to nurture relationships. I was amazed by how persistent the hospital were about ensuring I had a support system at home. Think about this for yourself and make it an imperative to engage with others. We should all be alert to how we and others are managing during times of stress, as connections go both ways.
- Focus on today. In my searching and reflecting, I read a bit about Buddhism, which emphasises stepping up to today and making the most of the present; yesterday is gone, and who knows what tomorrow will bring. As someone who likes to plan, prepare for the future, and occasionally cry over spilt milk, this mindset was hard to embrace. While it’s still elusive at times, there’s a positivity in releasing yesterday, not getting too far ahead in your thinking about tomorrow, and focusing fully on today.
- Hit pause on the noise around you and make time for self-care. You can’t take care of others or move forward if you don’t take time to restore. Go to bed earlier, make time for exercise, put down your ‘to do’ list, or get outside. During times of stress, make time to regroup, re-energise, slow down, and breathe. Be kind to yourself.
- Watch out for little setbacks. While my initial diagnosis, surgery, and recovery were fairly traumatic, it felt like a punch in the gut to hear the tumor was growing again. I wasn’t prepared for this bump in the road, as I had put my tumor issues in the rearview mirror and felt upset to be dealing with it again. The lesson for me is: it’s best to anticipate setbacks but stay positive. Don’t brush these hurdles off but consider what you need to move through these new challenges more easily, and remember to reach out for help. It might require just as much strength to get through the little bumps as the bigger ones, so don’t dismiss them.
Dealing with adversity pushes us out of our comfort zone. Often it’s in this discomfort that growth and learning happen. As we move through challenges, how can we capture and apply learnings so we shift into movement and action? The questions below are meant to provoke thinking and help you reflect and grow through your current challenge:
- What are the most difficult aspects of this current challenge and your new normal?
- How are you making progress?
- How can you approach today with different energy?
- What are you learning about yourself, your family, your co-workers, your sense of purpose, and your daily routines?
- What has been surprisingly positive about this experience?
- What actions can you take to move forward?
- How can you help others to move forward?
As a final update, my recent MRI in November showed that everything looks stable. We are entirely optimistic that the radiation was successful, but we won’t really know for another year or two as we continue to monitor and watch. All I know is that I feel good, have many reasons to be grateful, and have some new tools in my belt for any future bumps in the road. I hope they prove useful for you too.
Sarah Morris is a Leadership and Talent Development Consultant who works with Impact Americas.