Keep On Keeping On
Debbie Slavik is a 50-year brain tumour survivor and is one of the very few from the time of her diagnosis in 1972, when she was only thirteen years of age.
“Nobody seemed to pull through or endure a brain tumour accompanied with the gruelling surgeries involved. An adult, maybe, but children rarelysurvived the journey affected with a brain tumour. I feel as though I am a miracle child of that day and age,” Debbie states.
As a young child, Debbie had multiple ear infections and piercing pains above her right eye lasting 10 to 15 seconds causing her to double over in agony.
“I was being treated for sinus infections at that time. It was actually a brain tumour. They think I was born with it but there has never been a definitive answer given to this day,” she explains.
She was referred to Holy Cross Hospital, associated with Alberta Children’s Hospital in Calgary. Basically, there were only x-rays and electrocardiograms in general to rely on for a future prognosis.
MRIs and CT scans were in the pre stages of diagnostics and not readily available or perfected at that time for treatment to patients.
“Doctor Jack Barlass suspected a brain tumour after a few more tests were performed. I thought I was just having eye surgery,” she reflects.
After enduring a 10-hour exploratory surgery which included having 2 precisely located holes drilled into her skull. A grade-2 cystic astrocytoma was revealed in her cerebellum, extending down to the base of her neck.
Although the tumour was benign, it was proportionate to the size of a mandarin orange.
“My dad asked the medical team how long I would live if I wasn’t to have the operation conducted. The doctor gave me three months approximately to survive at best,” Debbie expresses.
Two weeks after her surgery, she found out she was officially diagnosed with having the astrocytoma. Her lifelong journey with a brain tumour had truly begun and is a reality.
“I was supposed to be comatose for six months, but I came right out of it.”
Since chemotherapy was a relatively new treatment in its infant stages, she was administered 22 treatments of cobalt radiation.
Facing down on a gurney with her head in a prone position, blasts of radiation penetrated Debbie’s ears on each side of her head. Her hair never grew back on the back of her head after the procedure was administered.
“My parents were told the only side effect of the treatment would mainly be poor dexterity in my hands, which I have today. It’s frustrating to be debilitated,” she expresses.
Due to her condition, she was exempt from physical education in school, with restrictions placed mainly on sports activities.
“I was called to the principal’s office in grade nine because I failed my aptitude test. I was an average student, but after my tumour realization Istruggled a lot in school. My memory was affected, and I didn’t realize that it was due to all the activity going on in my brain,” she says.
Up until April 1988, Debbie had been thriving in her career as a district manager for the newspaper company Lethbridge Herald.
In 1988, within two weeks she slowly lost coordination of her right leg and couldn’t walk. The numbness lasted six months. Because she had no other interaction with brain tumour patients or survivors growing up, Debbie told herself, “There’s got to be something.”
She managed over a hundred paper carriers, and her hard work did not go unnoticed at the Herald. She was a mentor and leader for many people in the newspaper industry.
Everything changed, however, when she had her first stroke; she started to lose sensation in her lower right leg.
“Because I was 28, they misdiagnosed me as having probable Multiple Sclerosis. That was a big void in my life that I couldn’t change. It took a lot out of me. My family wanted me back to who I was, but I was never really the same,” she says.
Despite suffering neural fatigue and sensitivity to heat because of her condition, Debbie learns to cope with the aftereffects as best as she can daily.
In August of 1993, she had an MRI scan which had indicated post radiation change.
In 1994, Debbie suffered a heart attack at the age of 34.
“That May, I had another MRI at Calgary General Hospital. They had to do it twice because they said I had a stroke. I wasn’t given a diagnosis, but I went to see an internist in Lethbridge, and he diagnosed me as having had a stroke,” she says.
“Just like brain tumours, there are different strokes. My memory is worse. My head gets filled fast with information; if I talk for a long time, I get tired. But I can vividly remember my childhood like it was yesterday.”
“I felt as though I was in the field all by myself, and for years I searched. I didn’t know anything about brain tumour support groups. I finally found Brain Tumour Foundation of Canada.
She had a hysterectomy in 2005 due to a fibroid cyst in her reproductive organs.
In 2020, Debbie suffered a second stroke, which she describes as more a mental than a physical challenge. From time to time, she also participates in recovery groups for stroke patients.
“I interact with people occasionally. Now that I had my second stroke, I find I get confused, and it’s hard to interact because of my hearing for an example. I now need to wear hearing aids fulltime,” she says.
Not only has the radiation affected her hearing, but also her ability to have had children.
“I read that cobalt radiation has aged my body by approximately 30 years. I couldn’t work anymore, and I never married, but just basically enjoyed what I could do and did the best I could. I’m still alive and kicking,” states Debbie proudly.
“Nobody is exempt to anything in life. I say to myself, I’m not letting this get the best of me, I’m getting the best of this.”
Now 63 years old, she lives with her eight-year-old Yorkshire terrier Gizmo– her “dude with an attitude”, and 13-year-old Bichon Shih Tzu cross named Tia.
“My dogs keep me going. Tia is my dad’s dog. My parents have both passed, but my next-door neighbor and his girlfriend take care of me and come over to have a coffee or tea occasionally. My younger sister lives on the north side of the city, just got engaged, but we keep in touch. My other sister is a snowbird. They are all awesome!” she smiles.
She considers her best friend and her next-door neighbors to be her major influences in life.
Despite her struggles with physical mobility, Debbie lives life each day to the best of her abilities. Since her second stroke, she has been strengthening her mind with computer games.
“If I must go to the grocery store, I will wait until it’s a good day. But if it’s windy, I can’t walk. I used to love camping, as well as crafting with my sisters, and cross stitching to keep my hands moving. I have quite a few challenges, but I just keep on keeping on. My brain is motivated, and knowing that is therapeutic,” Debbie says.
She defines hope as “hoping for the best but dealing with the worst.”
“The secret to life is how you handle it. You have two choices in life. You either crawl up in the corner and die or go on doing the best you can. Enjoy life because it’s a gift.”
On behalf of Brain Tumour Foundation of Canada and the brain tumour community,
Thank you, Debbie Slavik!