Philippa's Story

Philippa's Story

On December 31st, 2012, I happily posted on Facebook that after an amazing year of travel around the world, a semester working in London and Christmas spent with family in England, I couldn’t wait to see what 2013 would bring.

I had no idea that, at 20 years old, 2013 would include a CT scan, at least 4 MRIs and 2 brain surgeries. In the winter of 2012 I participated in the Ship for World Youth program organized by the Japanese government and in the Fall I had been living and working in London, UK and traveling around Europe on my days off. In November I had been selected as my university’s Engineers Without Borders Junior Fellow for 2013 (my dream since I was 12) – so a lot of things to be excited about.

On January 5th, 2013, while flying home from London on my own, I had a seizure in my sleep – fortunately witnessed by a doctor who wrote a full description for me. When we landed in St John’s, my parents were greeted by me – accompanied by paramedics who were called to meet the plane.

After a visit to the Emergency Department, followed by a CT scan a couple of days later, I was still blissfully unaware that anything significant may be wrong. This blissful ignorance was shattered after the scan as I was diagnosed with a low grade glioma in my left frontal lobe. I was immediately hospitalized – even though I felt perfectly fine – and spent an entire week waiting for my biopsy, feeling like I was in the wrong place. Having been used to traveling by myself, being confined to a hospital ward for 2 weeks was near torture so I was extremely lucky to have such supportive family and close friends, a private room, a hospital close to home and amazing nurses and doctors to help maintain my sanity.

The biopsy indicated either a slow growing pilocytic astrocytoma (grade 1) or a slow growing grade 2 astrocytoma – fortunately in an operable location, so as brain tumours go, pretty good. My radiation oncologist went through my options – watch and wait until something gets worse, likely requiring radiation within the next three years or remove as much of the tumour as possible; however, even the team of doctors said there was little evidence to back one option as superior to the other which resulted in months of uncertainty.

As I am the kind of person who tackles things head on, resection was my choice since this gave me more of a sense of control over my life. However, after having already missed two weeks of engineering classes for my first surgery, I was anxious to get back to university and determined to stay with my class and graduate on time. My team of doctors and nurses were incredible and I learned the importance of having a medical team who really understands who you are as a person and what you need rather than just treating the medical condition.

I had the surgery on Monday, May 6th, 2013 (immediately after the semester finished), which left me with a partially shaved head and temporary paralysis in my right side. While movement in my leg came back quickly, it was not until the Saturday night when I had full movement of my arm (a very exciting moment!). Although my right arm is still weaker than my left and there are a few things that no longer feel natural (like kicking a soccer ball and doing up buttons), I have recovered movement.

As for my hair (which has been my identifying feature since I was little because it is so curly), bows are conveniently in style this season and are an excellent disguise (please see the picture with the lighthouse, taken 3 weeks after surgery), for those of you who, like me, feel a little insecure rocking a partly/fully-shaved head.

On my 6-week MRI, there was no sign of the tumour, which was excellent news. My neurosurgeon approved travel to Europe (and Africa for Fall 2014 provided everything is stable) and I am writing this from England after having worked in London for a month (and traveled to Belgium and Prague, Czech Republic). While I still have to be careful not to overdo things, every day I see improvement.

I really learned whom I could count on – while some friends were disappointingly vacant, others really went above and beyond what I could have asked for. I couldn’t have gotten through the last 6 months without the never-ending support, love and positivity of my family and close friends (my grandmother even affectionately calls my scar “my lucky horseshoe”).

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