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For almost two decades, Anitta Hamming has battled an uncommon tumour that, when she was first diagnosed, came with a poor prognosis. Considered by her family and friends to be a statistical anomaly, Anitta lives with a cavernous sinus meningioma, and in 1993 was only the 37th case to be diagnosed in North America. Looking back on her diagnosis, Anitta says it was a conscious decision to not let the tumour dictate how she was going to live. “The stats weren’t in my favour and I knew it. It was my choice to live not defined by the brain tumour.”
In the early 1990s, Anitta was living what many would consider a normal life. She was married with a young son at home and another on the way. She had discovered a love of painting that boosted her confidence and joy for life. And then the signs that something was wrong appeared. “It began with numbness in my face,” Anitta recalls. She jokingly chalked it up to the position in which her baby was sitting.
Over the next few days, the symptoms worsened, causing Anitta to visit her doctor. She was alarmed when he immediately referred her to a neurologist. Being pregnant at the time, most of the tests the physicians wanted Anitta to undergo were impossible to perform. She had to wait while her symptoms escalated to include excruciating headaches, total right-facial numbness and diploplia (a droopy eye).
Due to the increasing symptoms, her doctor recommended an emergency C-section. Two weeks after giving birth, Anitta had an MRI. The scan revealed a dangerously positioned tumour – the mass was blocking blood flow to the right side of her brain. Anitta was told to expect the worst.
“The hardest thing to do in the world is to sit across from a doctor who puts a number [prognosis] on you, and see if you can feel your life beyond that diagnosis or date,” she adds. “You have to see beyond that date, and it takes work – to find that moment when you can see beyond the end date put on your life.”
Anitta was given three options, and none seemed positive:
Anitta chose surgery, and she beat the odds. “The first few months were me in and out of the hospital. I had two long surgeries, 13 and 15 hours each,” she remembers, “I had to miss many of the first weeks of my new son’s life.” Despite this heartache, and the shock of her diagnosis and treatment, Anitta persevered.
After the two operations, Anitta began the gruelling path to recovery, and in her words, “re-adjusting and learning to live all over again.” She also faced the challenge of post-surgical epilepsy, which caused her to have frequent partial seizures.
Residual tumour tissue that was left behind after the surgeries resulted in regrowth. In 2005, Anitta had radiation therapy for the recurrent tumour, using Gamma Knife® linear accelerator technology. Since then, she’s had regular scans and check-ins with her medical team to monitor for any changes. Anitta had one final MRI in spring 2012, and the results were surprising to say the least. “I got my results, and the tumour had shrunk!” Anitta says, “I was in a state of disbelief. After 18 years, I had gotten used to the poor prognosis I was given. It was almost like my routine was shaken up.”
Now Anitta volunteers her time with Brain Tumour Foundation of Canada, co-leading the Barrie support group. It’s her personal understanding of the challenges and successes for a brain tumour patient and survivor (and the sometimes heavy emotional burden that carries) that she says motivated her to give of her time to help others.
“It’s rewarding to be a part of this support group, and to be a participant that sees the change in another member, the peace, calm or hope they get – those things drove me through my own treatment and diagnosis. I had no one ahead of me to give me hope, and I needed to find it. Being hope to someone now is a blessing. I feel honoured by it.”
Since March 2012, Anitta has been the co-facilitator for the Barrie group. It was perfect timing Anitta says, as the group was pulling through some tough days and she was ready to start connecting with others dealing with the impact of a brain tumour. “I’d known for a long time that I wanted to get involved, but I had to be in the right headspace – no pun intended.”
Looking to the future, there is always the possibility of the brain tumour growing again, but Anitta chooses to see things in a more positive light. “No one can know what will happen tomorrow with absolute certainty. So I look at it this way. I cannot know with certainty that I may die from this, so then I must also be able to see the other side, which is that I may not. It is a choice which side I buy into, and it is my choice to live.”
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