It started off as a splitting headache that would not go away. Michelle Green tried a number of therapies: Massage, acupuncture, visiting a chiropractor. Then a neighbor suggested she see a doctor.
“Thank God for pesky neighbors,” Green says.
The tumor growing in her brain was the size of a golf ball.
The news was “absolutely terrifying.” Green was 33 years old.
Recurring Nightmare: Brain Tumor Symptoms
The surgery was successful. Green moved to Charlottesville and started a massage therapy practice in her home.
She learned that her seemingly mundane symptoms had been “big red flags. Waking up at night with a splitting headache. It’s not uncommon for a tumor growing in your brain to start showing signs of distress.”
And she knew about the other brain tumor symptoms, too — seizure, hemorrhage, stroke.
So last year when she had a seizure after being cancer-free for 10 years, she didn’t wait. She went straight to the doctor.
“One afternoon I just seized right in my kitchen. Somehow I made it over to my couch in my living room. I woke up dazed and called a good friend who came to get me. I went to my primary care physician, who announced I needed another MRI.” Within a week doctors discovered a new tumor, “a bit smaller, like an acorn.”
“World-Renowned” Neurosurgery Treatment at UVA
Green felt lucky to be in Charlottesville, with UVA and its “world-renowned neuro department just a mile away. It’s a town where a lot of people come from out of nowhere to get good healthcare. I met people who came from Tennessee, Kentucky, Roanoke, two hours away to get radiation. It’s the best in the mid-Atlantic.”
Green met neurosurgeon Dr. Jeff Elias, who “explained to me what the possibilities were. “
Green had to undergo surgery. This time, it was trickier. “The risk involved was that the tumor was very close to the speech area in the brain, so I had to do an extensive amount of MRI screening so they could find the area.”
The risk to her speech also required “awake craniotomy.” They gave Green what she calls “twilight drugs, because you wake up in a twilight zone during the operation. You have to respond the questions to see if they are too close to ruining your speech capacity.”
Green says you have to “mentally prepare for it, with the most courage you can. As they were attempting to bring me to consciousness, I started to have a seizure. They had to wait until I could gain control of my speech. You can’t remember anything and then you wake up. You wake up in a whole other land, with people frantically around you, 50 people all around you, busy busy. It’s a journey I don’t wish upon anyone.”
Recovery in the ICU
After surgery, Green was in the intensive care unit.
“The ICU nurses were fantastic. Not only were they confident and professional, they were very sweet to my parents who, as elderly people, were stunned, shell-shocked that they had to go through this again. Anyone who has to experience a hospital setting knows it’s so disorienting; you just want a coffee, or to know where to park in the middle of January. I worried more about them. That was the hard part, trying not to get wrapped up in caring for the people around you. Which is very common for patients.”
Green says one nurse in particular made a deep impression she’ll never forget. “She was rushing around when I was in danger of having a stroke because I was hemorrhaging a little bit. She was very intent to make sure I was getting scans; it was a sleepless night for her watching me.
Somewhere between 3 and 4 in the morning, she woke me with a little light to make sure I was lucid and dilating. Like an angelic figure hovering around me. I said, ‘Susan, you’re so pretty. Do you like chocolate?’ She said, ‘I love it.’ So as soon as I could, I got her some Gearharts Chocolates.”
Like an “Airwalk”: A Caring Team
After her surgery, Green had to have extensive and very specific brain tumor therapy to make sure the cancer was gone and didn’t recur. Dr. Elias told her, “Dr. David Schiff will be the quarterback of your team now.”
According to Green, it was “really an outstanding team. I was carefully and lovingly carried along. Like a mosh pit when you do the airwalk — everyone carries you along.”
But it wasn’t just the medical care that impressed Green. “What is so good about UVA is they assign you a nurse coordinator and a social worker. The nurse coordinator was very helpful, and the nurse from neuro-oncology. They were very helpful, doing things like reminding me to come in every week to get blood work.”
Green also felt confidence because “I know I’m in the system. They know my patient number, my blood type. They know me. They’ll have my history. Nowadays with MRI scans in real time, I can get my answers quickly, and that is the most important thing.”
Brain Tumor Therapy and Recovery
Green started chemotherapy and radiation at the Emily Couric Clinical Cancer Center on Valentine’s Day 2012.
“Emily Couric — love it,” she says. But it was hard. She had six weeks of radiation, every day, Monday through Friday.
“I was so exhausted. I had to stay on top of my meds. Keep myself fed. Try to keep it together. In the evening, take my chemo meds. And then six more cycles. It’s been a long year, taking medication on regimented cycles.”
Jaunt, a regional transportation system, also turned out to be a life-saver, since Green was officially disabled and couldn’t drive herself to the hospital. “The folks at Jaunt were really sweet. It was an incredible service; people don’t realize it’s so critical to this community.”
Green’s therapy also included physical and speech therapists.
She explains, “The physical therapists were concerned about me going in and out of the bathtub. So much of the deficit from surgery, chemo and radiation is a real loss of short-term memory and balance.” A year later, Green still experiences some cognitive deficiency. “It happens casually now. I may get so excited about a topic and forget what I was talking about. It’s like word recall and memory recall.“
After Cancer: Moving Forward
Green still gets screened every three months, but it’s become routine for her. And she’s grateful to have been given a clean bill of health and for the care she received.
“You’re not going to get any better in this region than UVA. Stunningly smooth system for patient care. I’m going to stay in Cville for a while, because I feel so confident in this system.”