Mid-life is a time that is ripe for change. Sometimes change occurs because of an expected transition, such as an empty nest. However, change can be forced on us because of an accident or a disease such as brain cancer, which can rob us of the carefully crafted self-image we’ve honed throughout our life. But if we listen closely, new opportunities to express our humanity and talents can appear.
Case in point: Linda East, who is a very successful public relations executive in El Paso, Texas. During her long career, Linda has won countless state and national awards and been recognized for her work in both school district and hospital public relations. She earned accreditation in public relations and was elected president of the Texas School Public Relations Association. She also served as the 72nd president of the Sun Bowl Association in 2007.
Warning Signs of Change Ahead
However, Linda’s life also changed dramatically in 2007 when she was diagnosed with a brain cancer tumor called an oligodentroglioma. In fact, she discovered that she had the brain tumor while serving as the Sun Bowl president. “The doctor said that it was slow growing and had been there for about 30 years,” Linda said. “It was the size of a plum and it was on the top right side of my brain.”
Linda started to notice signs that something was wrong but she didn’t realize the seriousness of her situation. “When I was employed at Del Sol Medical Center, I was having trouble with words. I was hesitant about doing any on-camera interviews,” Linda said. “I told my boss about it, but he said it must be stress. I had headaches, but I thought they were sinus headaches. While I didn’t have balance problems, I was doing strange things like brushing my teeth and spitting it into the trash can.”
After being laid off from Del Sol in late 2006, Linda was soon hired as a consultant for the El Paso Independent School District’s bond election. On April 25, 2007, she experienced a seizure and was taken by ambulance to Del Sol Medical Center. While at the hospital, she experienced a second seizure. She had a CAT scan, which discovered the brain cancer tumor.
Linda began searching for a neurosurgeon and discovered Dr. Jeffery Cattorini, a doctor at Medical Center Plano near Dallas. “I owe my life to Dr. Cattorini,” she said. “Dr. Cattorini answered all of my questions for two hours. Because the tumor was located so close to the brain’s communications areas, he said the surgery would have to be an awake craniotomy.” This surgery is the preferred technique for operations that remove lesions close to or involving functionally important regions of the brain, according to University Hospital Southampton. The patient is awake so that they can respond as surgeons test brain regions to determine if they are functioning.
Linda had the brain cancer surgery on May 18, 2007. However, she suffered another seizure that caused expressive aphasia with disnomia, which causes Linda to have difficulty retrieving words. She was sent to an intensive rehabilitation program before being sent to an outpatient rehab facility. “I didn’t like the outpatient rehab facility so my husband and I returned to El Paso to have outpatient speech therapy, occupational therapy and physical therapy,” she said.
Expressive aphasia continues to cause Linda to have challenges while speaking. “In the early stages of aphasia, I said two words: I want. And then I would try to find words. For example, when I was in the hospital, I wanted dental floss, but I said bowel movement. I was handed a bed pan and everyone cleared the room,” Linda said. “That wasn’t it. So I said bowel movement again. The nurse got mad at me and I was in tears. So, I mimed for the nurse…dental floss!”
Her family has learned to help Linda find the right words. “I remember when my son, Adam, was driving me around the neighborhood, I saw these stone figures in the yards,” Linda explained. “I wanted the correct name for it and Adam was guessing: two story? adobe? lawn ornament? Lawn ornament was the correct name!”
Linda has now regained about 90 percent of her ability to speak, but still struggles on occasion. “I am intelligent but I don’t think people think I am intelligent because I do not talk well,” she said.
The public relations professional, who is now on disability, also has difficulty with spelling, typing and remembering people she knows. “I usually say something like, ‘Where do I know you from?’ Also, I will remember the last name, but not the first name,” she explained.
Regaining Her Voice
Aphasia has created major professional challenges. For instance, Linda was hired to teach an introductory course on public relations at El Paso Community College. “On the first day, I knew what I wanted to say, but I couldn’t articulate it. I quit the first day,” she said.
“I used to give workshops on public speaking or speak on a topic like PR or cancer. But now I am terrified of public speaking. I have the message in my head, but I don’t know what is going to come out of my mouth. And I do not want the stress,” she said.
She still has found ways to continue to get her message heard. “I read all of the speeches; I don’t do any ad lib. When I was president of the Sun Bowl Association, I gave two speeches, one for 150 people and the other for 1,000 people. I also gave a speech for the American Cancer Society on my brain cancer,” she said.
Finding a New Normal
While Linda has been affected by her condition, she hasn’t let it control her life. For instance, she has figured out that she functions more effectively in a quiet environment where she can concentrate. That makes parties difficult. “If the noise is loud, I cannot concentrate,” she said. “When it is noisy, I tune out and become silent.”
She also has found that she benefits from using essential oils. She said, “Essential oils are my medicine cabinet. You can use the essential oils three ways: inhale it, ingest it or use it topically.”
Growing in New Ways
Linda also is finding new ways to grow. For instance, she has started using a brain training website called Lumosity. “I performed poorly in the beginning, but I have improved,” she noted, adding that she tackles the website’s challenges in a quiet room.
She also has discovered the power of music to help improve her brain function. “After nine years of being silent, I am taking singing lessons!” Linda proudly said. “I found that I love, love, love singing! I am not good at singing but these lessons provide me with more support for when I speak.”
Linda also is continuing to focus on her physical and mental health. “I have balance problems so I take yoga and barre. I also take weight-lifting class and spinning,” she said. “And I’ve taken a class on nutrition.”
Despite her difficulty speaking, Linda is finding ways to thrive professionally. “I just finished two case studies in public relations and will pursue grant writing,” she said. “And I am thinking of doing online classes because there’s no speaking involved!”
Linda has found many ways to embrace life in the aftermath of her brain cancer diagnosis. “In my previous life, I used to thrive on stress,” Linda said. “But I have found that I don’t want stress at all. I have been in remission for nine years. I wake up every morning and thank God for giving me one more day. I am truly blessed.”