Ultra races are tough, but life can hand out even bigger challenges ...
Updated: Jan 4, 2019
As you are reading this, I am in ICU at the UVA hospital recovering from brain surgery (However, I wrote this post earlier in the week so all I had to do was click "publish").
So why brain surgery? I found out that I have a tumor back in September. For the past 5 years, I’ve had issues with hormonal imbalances related to estrogen. It was finally recommended that I go to UVA and see Dr. Smith who is a reproductive endocrinologist.
I went to see her and shared my symptoms related to hormonal irregularities. Dr. Smith suggested that I get an MRI to see if there might be a mass blocking my pituitary gland and affecting its function. I was eager to rule that out, so I went back to Blacksburg to do an MRI. After I went through the procedure, the radiologist squeezed my shoulder and said, “good luck.” I came home and told my husband Jeremy about her comment, which was unsettling.
A week later, Dr. Smith called me and shared that I did not have a mass blocking my pituitary gland, but the MRI showed a tumor in my frontal lobe, about the size of a cherry. It’s called a meningioma and this type is really common in women. She said there are different treatment options and suggested an apt at UVA’s Neurosciences Center.
I went for my consultation with Dr. Vollmer a week later. I learned that there are 3 treatment options (but let’s be honest, there is really only one). Dr. Vollmer shared they could just watch it, but the reality is that the tumor will grow over time, causing complications down the road. The second option is to use a “gamma ray knife” to deliver radiation to the tumor, but he didn’t recommend that option because the tumor is too big for that to be successful and they often grow back. The third and only option he recommended was surgery for the best chance of success of completely removing the tumor.
Here is what I learned about my tumor:
The tumor is slow growing and likely benign
It’s probably been growing for the last 10 – 15 years
If we didn’t remove it, it would like affect my personality down the road, causing depression and other things
Very common in women, abnormal cells grow due to hormones
It has smooth sides and should be easy to “pop” out
They won’t shave my head and will shave a small strip of hair right above the entry point
It could grow back and I may need surgery again, like 20 years from now
He suggested getting the surgery done within the next 6 months, otherwise, they would have to continue to monitor the tumor with MRIs. I would need to take a minimum of 6 weeks off for recovery.
I left UVA feeling very calm about the news and called Jeremy to let him know – he actually thought I was kidding when I told him I needed brain surgery. My mom and I went out to lunch and did some shopping while we processed this news.
In typical Emily fashion, I called UVA the next day and scheduled my surgery for December 13. Why December?
It’s around the holidays so I would have plenty of time off.
While it’s a busy time at work, delaying the surgery for 4 months would allow me to make progress on some gift conversations and wrap up some big projects.
It’s a cold time of year and perfect time to take a rest from training.
I had already signed up for my 50 mile race on December 1 and wanted to check that off my list since it was my 2018 goal. What a perfect excuse to “rest” after the race!
The silver lining here is that the tumor was discovered early in my life before there were complications. This reality is out of my control – I must get this done and I have to trust my doctor and his team.
The last 4 months have been a roller coaster of emotions and I’ve experienced high levels of stress and anxiety. I honestly think the worst part of all of this is the waiting game and dealing with my emotions.
I’ve really listened to my friends’ suggestions, including seeing a therapist. I’ve had 2 sessions so far and learned a lot about myself. Her approach is holistic in nature and one eye-opening thing she told me is that my “yin and yang” are off balance. Her words … “You’re too yangy and need more yin in your life.” Everything that I do requires energy, from my high-stress job, to training and racing, to even the type of yoga that I do, which is mostly hot, power, etc. I don’t do anything yin, like meditation, restorative yoga, etc. This is a true fact. I am attracted to the activities which require power and strength, but now it’s time to figure out how to get some more yin action in my life.
Dealing with Stress & Anxiety:
The hardest part of the last 4 months is the fact that I have a lot of stress and anxiety on a daily basis. There isn’t a day that goes by where I don’t talk about this. Every night I wake up with anxiety thinking about the surgery. The most vivid dream I’ve had to date is when the surgical team took the small circular saw to my head, removed a skull plug and accidentally dropped it on the floor. It rolled around before a resident picked it up, blew the dust off and plugged it back into my head! Nothing beats the 5 second rule!
I have had a lot stress at work. It was extremely hard to have conversations with my bosses, team and close coworkers. I’ve probably had crying breakdowns over a dozen times. I’m usually a very positive person, so it feels foreign to me to have these outbursts, especially at work. It’s been stressful dealing with everyone’s reactions and responses.
It’s hard to plan for being out of the office for an extended period during the busy “giving” season. Most of our donors make their gifts by the end of the calendar year and I’m also working with 5-6 donors on some major gifts that require a lot of communication, visits, and planning. This surgery date has made me have laser focus on work and we’ve been able to close some significant gifts in a very short time frame.
My Support Network:
I have never experienced an outpouring of love and amazing support until this time in my life. I am beyond humbled and grateful for all the support we continue to receive. Friends, family, and coworkers have expressed their support in so many ways and I’ve truly needed it.
I decided that I wanted to create a positive healing space in my house and give my friends a cool way to help with my recovery process. I asked friends to bring something for this space … something positive …something that reminds them of “Emily.” My healing space now puts a huge smile on my face every time I'm in the room.
My friend Erin is an angel. She pushes me when I need it, like suggesting therapy and encouraging me to provide ways for people to help. It’s hard for me to ask for help. All of my friends near and far are always there when I need to talk, offering up real advice and suggestions. Erin is a master organizer and has created a system and lists for friends who want to make meals or exercise Huck during recovery.
The In Balance Yoga community has also been really supportive, and will continue to be once I get home from surgery. It is one of the few things that truly brings peace to my day. Nicole, Keala and several other instructors know about my surgery and somehow have a way of incorporating exactly what I need into every practice.
Paula and Bettina are friends who are offering up their beautiful home the night before surgery and giving Jeremy a comfortable place to sleep while I’m at UVA. We are so humbled by their generosity. Paula even called to ask what firmness of pillows we liked, favorite foods, Jeremy’s go-to breakfast items, and even made a map of all the places Jeremy can visit when he needs a break from the hospital scene.
My bosses, colleagues, team, and donors are incredible. They are stepping up to help me in so many ways. I’ve cried a dozen times at work, usually in Arlice’s office, and appreciate the fact that I have a safe place to let all my emotions out, in between meetings and all.
Arlice gave me a pep talk on my last day at work and I’ll always remember her words during this journey: “You have strength and determination that I don’t think you fully comprehend—that doesn’t mean that you don’t experience anxiety, of course you do, but it does mean that as long as you have the will to get better (and I know you do), you will come through this. Besides, I need your smiling face in this office. It would be pretty dull and boring around here without you!”
Last by not least, I am grateful for my husband and family. My parents, aunts, cousins, in laws and close family friends are all there by my side, sharing their positivity and love. Jeremy is so incredibly calm, practical and wise. Just last night he shared the 5x5 rule with me when I told him that health, life and love are more important than all the other things.
You can apply the 5x5 rule to most things in your life: “Will this matter or affect me in 5 years? If not, don’t spend more than 5 minutes worrying about it”.
I am so grateful for each and every one of you. Please send all of your positive thoughts, vibes, and prayers my way. In the words of my cousin Jaime ...
“Just think of this surgery as an opportunity to take the deepest and longest nap of your life!”
I look forward to sharing more about my surgery and recovery process on the other side. Love to you all.