Murray's Story: 30 Years of Hope

Murray's Story: 30 Years of Hope

A lot can happen over the course of 30 years: marriages, new homes, job changes and children. For Murray Cass, the past three decades have brought all of these things, plus something more: the journey with a brain tumour.

Murray is a three-time brain tumour survivor, with 1982 marking his first diagnosis. It was that June when Murray says he began noticing physical changes. While he was out cycling one day, he started having trouble maintaining balance on his bike. “I just kept falling off the road onto the soft shoulder. I couldn’t figure out what was wrong.”

From there, the headaches started. It wasn’t until August, on a camping trip, that Murray developed the nausea that is often associated with a brain tumour. Concerned about the string of unusual symptoms he was experiencing, Murray went to his doctor, who wrote off the signs as tension headaches. Unfortunately, Murray’s symptoms continued to worsen, with his nausea becoming frequent vomiting. It was only then that a doctor suggested Murray go to emergency at North York General Hospital where he knew that a neurosurgeon was on shift. “It all happened so quickly,” Murray recalls. “I was in on Friday for an appointment with a doctor, and on Saturday I had a CT scan revealing the tumour.”

Murray remembers the date of his first diagnosis clearly – September 30, 1982. That was when he learned there was a Hemangioblastoma on his cerebellum. “It was an odd mix of feelings, hearing those words,” he says. “It was terrifying but a relief as well to finally understand what was happening with my health.” A three-and-a-half hour surgery to remove the non-malignant tumour followed this startling diagnosis.

Eleven years later, Murray was married with one daughter and another on the way. The family was on holiday when everything changed. “We were on vacation when my symptoms reappeared. I knew right away the tumour was back.” Having been told after his 1982 surgery that there was only a slim chance of a tumour’s reappearance, Murray says he was shocked when the second diagnosis was made official.

He was especially shaken because recurrences of Hemangioblastomas are usually associated with von Hippel-Lindau syndrome (VHL syndrome), a genetic condition involving the abnormal growth of blood vessels in parts of the body. “That was devastating,” Murray adds. “Tumours I could handle, but the thought that this might be something I pass down to my children was a prospect so terrible I couldn’t find words to describe it.” Fortunately, after a series of tests, it was determined that Murray did not have VHL – but he would still need surgery to remove the new tumour.

murray after brain tumour surgeryThe regular brain scans that followed his second tumour ensured Murray’s medical team stayed on top of his health care, and it was this consistent monitoring that led to the early detection of his third tumour in 2001. The mass had returned in the same spot as the first two. “It was news I didn’t want to hear but thankfully it was discovered early this time,” Murray says. “I had been through this before so I felt like I knew what to expect.”

However, medical treatment had changed since Murray’s last tumour; there were surgical options to consider that weren’t available before. Stereotactic radiosurgery, a non-invasive radiation technique, had gained prominence in treating non-malignant brain tumours like Hemangioblastomas.

Murray could choose one of two options: stereotactic radiosurgery or surgical resection. “I looked at my choices from every angle: recovery, how invasive the treatment would be, life expectancy. In the end, I chose surgery and it was the toughest decision I’d had to make yet.” A lengthy six-and-a-half hour operation was a success and today Murray is tumour-free.

Murray and his wife DeborahThroughout Murray’s remarkable 30-year journey with this disease, he’s never let it bring him down. In fact, he says experiencing how quickly life can change helped inspire him to take on challenges and try new things. Growing up, he was never an athlete, calling himself a clumsy kid.

Today Murray is an avid marathon runner and Ironman triathlete. He recently competed in the 2012 Boston Marathon, finishing 383rd out of 1080 finishers in his age category. Murray says it’s with a lot of determination that he makes it through these tough endurance competitions, equating his races to recovering from his numerous brain tumours.

“To me, competing in endurance races is similar to going into brain surgery. You just have to focus and get through it. You’d be amazed at what you can do if you try.”

The Ironman motto is “Anything is Possible,” and Murray truly believes that. “If someone had told me ten years ago that I would soon be running in the Boston Marathon or competing in an Ironman triathlon my response would have been a fit of hysterical laughter.”

“Just after my third operation my family doctor asked me how I get by knowing that my tumour could recur at any time. I responded ‘What choice do I have?’ Now and then we all face a difficult situation. We can only work with our available options. It does not make sense to me to wallow in self-pity. I have always found it best to just move on, with a smile and the occasional tear.” 

Now, at 57 years of age, Murray is telling his story for the first time publicly, in hopes that it might help others affected by a brain tumour. “For years I have only shared these experiences with friends and relatives, but if there’s even one person who can feel a little bit more positive about their journey, it’s all worth it.”

Murray's story was shared in 2012 

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