'My Brain Fog Turned Out To Be A Symptom Of Stage 2 Cancer'

Three years ago, Laura Burget had just graduated from college and was excited about starting her adult life. She had a job in software sales and a growing social circle in her home town. One night, she was relaxing with friends, playing a game of cards. “I remember sitting down on a couch and looking at my cards and then all of sudden it felt like my mind was detaching from my body,” says Laura, now 27. “It was so scary—my heart started racing and my eyes were darting all over the place, my thoughts became scrambled and frantic, and I couldn’t speak.”

This strange spell lasted about 15 seconds, and when it was over Laura shook it off and told her friends she was fine. “I thought it must just be stress or lack of sleep,” she recalls. After all, she was young and healthy, with no reason to believe anything could be physically wrong: She worked out three times a week, ate a healthy diet, never did drugs, and didn’t even drink very much. “My only health issues at the time were asthma and allergies,” she says. “When you’re in your early twenties, you never think anything serious can happen to you.”

Laura put that weird moment of “disassociation” in the back of her mind and continued on with her life. But a month later, it happened again. And again six weeks after that. “It was always when I was concentrating intensely on something,” says Laura. “It was just as frightening each time, because I didn’t know why it was happening.” Because she wasn’t having full-body seizures, her friends didn’t quite grasp the extent of what was happening to her: “My eyes would close and my upper body would become very limp and I would slump over,” says Laura. “But I didn’t have spasms or pass out, so if you were sitting next to me you might not know anything was happening.”

Laura was more and more alarmed by what was happening, but she still didn’t seek medical help, until one of her episodes happened right in front of a doctor—her own mum, who is also a family physician. “I was visiting my parents over the Christmas holidays,” Laura recalls. “My mum saw me having an episode and said, ‘This is not normal.” Laura’s mum made her promise to see a doctor as soon as she got back home.

Laura’s doctor referred her to a neurologist. “He did a full test, asking me to stand on one foot and then the other, checking to see if I could hear when he snapped on each side of my head,” says Laura. At the end of the exam, the neurologist told her there were no indications that anything was wrong neurologically, but as a precaution, he had her driver’s license temporarily suspended. (In many states and provinces, doctors are required by law to report a patient who is at risk of having seizures when driving.)

Over the next few months, Laura kept moving forward —she quit her day job to start a beauty company, Niu Body, with a partner, and even bought a house with her sister and started the work on renovations. But those weird brain moments were coming more frequently, every four weeks or so. These kind of partial seizures are also known as focal seizures, explains James Bernheimer, M.D., a neurologist at Mercy Medical Center in Baltimore and a member of Prevention‘s medical review board. “All seizures are caused by a synchronized abnormal electrical discharge in the brain,” he explains. “When they spread locally but do not cross to the opposite side of the brain to become generalised, they generally cause disorientation, confusion, repetitive behaviour, and sometimes poor responsiveness.”

Her doctor sent her for a few more tests, including two electroencephalograms (known as EEGs, these common tests for epilepsy measure brain waves via electrodes placed on the scalp), which still found nothing wrong. “I had a mixed set of emotions, because I didn’t want abnormal results, but at the same time, I really wanted to know what was going on,” Laura recalls.

“Abnormal electrical activity on an EEG can sometimes pinpoint where the seizure is coming from but it still doesn’t say what is causing it—for that you need an imaging study such as MRI,” points out Dr. Bernheimer. Laura says that from her very first meeting with the neurologist, she had asked about getting a CAT scan or MRI to rule out any abnormalities or tumours—but her doctor wanted her to try medication therapy first. (Dr. Bernheimer, who was not involved in Laura’s case, says that anticonvulsants are commonly prescribed immediately after recurring seizures, or even after a single focal seizure before imaging is done, and they don’t typically affect the test results.)

But after consulting with her parents, Laura said no to the meds. “A lot of anticonvulsant medications have pretty strong side effects, and I thought that was a lot to put my body through if they weren’t going to work,” says Laura. Instead the doctor agreed to schedule her for a week-long sleep study to rule out apnea. “And I said to him, I’m not going to leave your office today until you book me in for a CT scan or an MRI,” Laura says.

The night Laura finally went to the hospital for her MRI was October 31, 2019. “I remember being in the Uber and driving by all the clubs downtown and seeing everyone in their Halloween outfits having fun,” she recalls. “It was such a weird moment, because I thought, I’m in my 20s—I should be out celebrating, not going to the hospital for an MRI.’”

There was one glitch when Laura had the MRI, in which magnetic fields and radio create a detailed picture of the brain. Laura didn’t realise that the test would involve an IV injection of a contrast dye, which is used to highlight different areas of the brain—and she’s extremely needle-phobic. “After the technician injected the dye, I felt really faint, and I passed out while I was lying in the MRI tube,” she recalls. After the scans were completed, Laura sat on a stretcher in the MRI room, where she could be monitored until her blood pressure and heart rate returned to normal. But in a bizarre twist, because of the position in which she was sitting, she was able to peer over the technician’s shoulder and see what was on her screen. What she saw shocked her to her core.

“I saw this image of a brain with a tumour the size of an egg,” she says. “I told myself, Oh, that scan can’t be yours—it must be another patient’s, or maybe she’s in training and it’s just a reference image.” But despite her woozy state, Laura says she knew deep down that what she was seeing was a scan of her own brain.

Laura’s instincts had been right all along. A week later, she was sitting in her neurologist’s office as he explained that she had a stage-2 astrocytoma—a type of slow-growing cancer that can develop in the brain or spine. “It was like a bad dream, because you can never imagine this will happen to you, much less happen when you’re only 26 years old,” says Laura. But mixed with her anxiety and fear was a sense of relief, since she finally knew what was wrong. “At a certain point you start thinking, Am I just imagining this? When every test is coming back normal, you start blaming yourself and wondering if you’re just being a problem patient,” Laura says.

Next, Laura was referred to a neurosurgeon, who explained that an astrocytoma can grow very slowly for years, but at some point, the cells can become much more aggressive. ‘No one knows when that transformation will happen, so the goal with surgery is to remove as much of the tumour as possible without damaging any part of the brain,” Laura says. Her surgeon warned that because of the location of the tumour, Laura’s peripheral vision and the movement of her left leg might be affected by the surgery.

Laura and her parents weighed the risks of the surgery versus the risks of waiting—and even travelled from Toronto to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, MN, for a second opinion. They all agreed she should go ahead with the surgery.

Laura found that the best way to deal with her fear was to take a deep dive into everything should could read or watch about brain surgery. “I wanted to know everything, from what they would actually be doing in the ER to what the scar would look like,” she says. She spent her days watching YouTube videos other patients had created about their brain-cancer surgery. “It was still extremely scary, but I just tried to accept that this was going to be a part of my story, and that it would lead to a life that was more fulfilling and more gratifying because I’d been through this hard thing,” she says.

On March 4, 2020, Laura was wheeled into the operating room. “I remember everything was stark white and very bright and cold like a spaceship, and there were so many people in there, surgeons, nurses, anesthesiologists—I got the sense that everyone had their job and knew exactly what they needed to do,” she says.

After 10 hours of surgery—during which the team was able to remove 70% of her tumour—Laura woke up in the recovery room, crying silent tears of relief that she was awake had made it through. A week after she went home, Toronto, like much of the rest of the world, announced stay-at-home orders because of the coronavirus crisis.

“It was such weird timing for me, because in a sense it feels like the whole world has slowed down at the same time that I’m slowing down and recovering,” Laura says. In the first few days after the surgery, she felt some of the side effects her doctors had warned her about. “I couldn’t really feel where I was in space—I didn’t understand how doorways worked or how I could walk through them, and I couldn’t tell if I was sitting on the end or the middle of the bed. Everything was just off kilter,” she explains. But within two weeks, everything was back to normal. She’s spending the rest of the quarantine at home with her sister.

For the future, Laura and her doctors will have to pay close attention to make sure the tumour doesn’t grow or become more aggressive—she’ll have to go in for regular MRIs every six months for the rest of her life.

As Laura continues her recovery, she has reflected on what this experience means, and what she wants other young women to know: “The biggest thing I learned is to be your own advocate for your health,” Laura says. “Be very descriptive when you’re describing your symptoms to your doctor, and if you know in your gut that something is wrong, keep pushing—doctors know a lot, but it’s impossible for them to know everything.

“Try to see whatever positives you can,” Laura continues. “I try to see the ways this experience is going to make me appreciate every single day, and it will make my friendships and family stronger and better.”

This article originally appeared on Prevention US. 

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