How a Brain Tumor Gave Me Confidence

by Brittany Salsman


It was January 2, 2017 - a Monday. I was having lunch with a friend and noticed the first signs of a developing migraine. It started in my right temple with a low, constant tension. As lunch progressed, the tension grew into an ache and shifted to just above my right ear.


I didn’t think much of it because I’ve had many migraines before. They make an appearance about 3-4 times each year, so I knew it would continue to increase in pain as it shifted around to the base of my neck before disappearing. I also knew exactly what was needed to manage it until it went away. Go home, take two migraine-strength Tylenol tablets, turn off the lights, climb under the blankets, and sleep for about two hours. This is precisely what I did and when I woke up, I felt great!


Then, about an hour later, the migraine came back with a vengeance. This had not happened before, which was interesting, but not alarming. I simply took a couple more capsules and went back to sleep for the night.


The next morning, I had slept off my migraine and prepared to go back to work after the holiday break. It was an average workday - not too busy, not too slow. But the one thing that wasn’t average was the lightning bolts that would dart through my right eye. They were quick, infrequent, and didn’t impact my ability to do my work, but I noticed them.


By Wednesday, those short bursts of light shifted to complete blackouts in my right eye for 5-10 seconds at a time. While this worried me, I decided to give it until the weekend to improve before I called a doctor. My coworker, on the other hand, was very concerned. She’s a very level-headed person, so when she urged me to go to an immediate care center after work, I paid attention.


When I arrived at the immediate care center, thankfully, no one was ahead of me and I went right back. I expected they would prescribe an even stronger migraine medication than I had at home and send me on my way. Instead, they administered a vision test and told me I needed to go to the hospital. They offered to call an ambulance, but I still didn’t think it was that serious. So, I walked the six blocks to Northwestern Memorial Hospital.


After five hours in the waiting room, I was exhausted and happy to hear my name called. The ER doctor ordered a CT scan and came back shortly to say, “The CT shows that there’s a mass, but it’s probably not a big deal. We will need to admit you and run more tests, so I’m going to have the nurse give you some medication to manage the pain you’re in.” The nurse then injected my IV with pain meds and off to la-la land I went.


From that point on, my memory is blank with the exception of two moments. One of my younger sisters playing the ukulele and singing and a second of my older sister and my dad walking behind me as I was transported to the surgical prep room. I don’t remember anything outside of that. Now, I know what happened because people have told me, but I don’t have any personal memory. No memory of being officially admitted from the ER and moving to a hospital room. No memory of the MRI. No memory of receiving the diagnosis. No memory of my family arriving. No memories of interactions with my medical team. No memories of the discussion around my medical options or the subsequent surgery to remove a 2.6 cm meningioma, a type of brain tumor, that Friday, January 6, 2017. No memory of my time in the ICU, being moved out of the ICU, or being discharged. No memory of the ride home, walking in my door, or seeing my dog, Taz, for the first time. No memory of sleeping in my bed that first night back at home. There’s a large gap of time that is simply blank in my mind.


To see photos from my surgery and recovery, visit www.lifelivedbydesign.com/surgery.


This experience was life-altering and marked the beginning of the examination of my own life. My life - the way I make decisions, interact with others, prioritize what is most important, and the clarity I have around what I’m moving towards - is completely different after January 6, 2017. There is a clear distinction between the way I moved through the world before my surgery and the way I move through life now. I seek approval only from myself. I know I have the answers to all my questions within me. I am deeply tapped into what I truly want, rather than what others want for me. I experience the richness of life every single day.


As I have connected with others who have had life-altering experiences, I have found that this is not uncommon. In fact, psychologists Richard Tedeschi and Lawrence Calhoun coined the term “posttraumatic growth” in the mid-1990s to describe just this. “Posttraumatic growth is the experience of positive change that occurs as a result of the struggle with highly challenging life crises. It is manifested in a variety of ways, including an increased appreciation for life in general, more meaningful interpersonal relationships, an increased sense of personal strength, changed priorities, and a richer existential and spiritual life.”


When you look your own mortality directly in the eyes, it is simply impossible to ignore. You are left with a single decision - continue on the path of overwhelm, disappointment, and dissatisfaction that you’re on or pick yourself up and do something about it.


I am grateful for my brain tumor and, in an even stranger way, I am also grateful that my medical team was not able to remove all of it. I return to Northwestern Memorial Hospital annually for MRI scans to monitor the residual tumor. This provides me with the opportunity to assess the progress I’ve made on my personal commitment to “love the life [I] live and live the life [I] love.”