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Heart of Darkness

Before I had a brain tumor, I always imagined tumors existing only in the way that the big lumpy tumors on old dogs do - a meaty bit that has grown off of some invaluable body part. Hearing people compare a tumor to a grapefruit in the past only contributed to the misconception of mine. I imagined tumors as attached hunks of cancer that were as distinguishable from the breast, colon, or brain as a blackhead from the skin.

Maybe some tumors are like that, but not mine.

I have oligodendroglioma. This type of tumor is seriously creepy because it grows into the brain. When I was diagnosed with a brain tumor and told I needed surgery, I naively thought that there would be a delicate procedure akin to removing a peach pit from a peach.

I knew about margins - that the surgeon would need to take as much brain as possible from the area around the tumor to try to get all the lingering adjacent cancer cells without hurting my healthy brain. But I still didn't have a good idea of the sort of nebulous state of my tumor. I still imagined it as a thing, distinct from my brain.

But surprise y'all, it's not. This cancer has long, microscopic tendrils that grow into healthy brain material. It looks like normal brain tissue to the naked eye, but it magically appears on an MRI like invisible ink. The tumor takes root and spreads nebulously out in every direction, changing my healthy oligodendrocytes (a type of brain cell that every brain has) into cancer cells.

The surgeon went for the largest mass of this tumor - the part that was visible on the MRI - but no one knows where or how long those tendrils are. He tried to get a “good margin” but one cannot follow the tendrils into the brain.

So instead of removing a peach pit and maybe a bit of nearby peach flesh, imagine trying to remove a vein of mold from a block of cheese (if the mold was the same color and texture as the cheese and you only had a fuzzy picture of the mold to work from - plus you obviously don’t want to cut the cheese).

Expectation versus reality

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