Woman Bounces Back from a Brain Tumor – with Humor IntactMar 21, 2011
In 2004, Cullen Forrest was sitting with her husband at a restaurant, enjoying dinner out. In the middle of the meal, her body was rocked by a sudden grand mal seizure. She was rushed to a nearby hospital, where an MRI revealed something she never expected: a mass the size of a lemon growing in the left hemisphere of her brain. Further tests determined that the mass was a type of brain tumor -- a mixed oligodendroglioma/astrocytoma.
In the space of a day, Forrest went from living life as a business consultant and newlywed to facing the news she had a tumor that took up nearly a quarter of the space of her brain.
She remembers what it was like to hear the news that she had cancer: “I didn’t even really believe that I had a tumor until I saw it on the MRI,” she says. “Sometimes I look at the pictures with wonder. That was in my head?”
The Challenges of Treatment
Soon after she was diagnosed, Forrest began treatment for the massive growth. First came a delicate brain surgery that successfully removed the bulk of the tumor. Weeks of chemotherapy, radiation, and speech therapy followed.
During her combination therapy, radiation proved to be one of the biggest challenges. “[It] made me very tired. I would work part time in the morning, go to radiation at 3:00 pm, and sleep until my husband came home from work at 6:30 pm.”
The radiation therapy also meant that Forrest lost the hair on the front of her head. “I was wearing folded bandanas like they were going out of style,” she says.
As a way to help her cope with the hair loss while benefitting others, she made plans to cut her hair short and donate it to charity. Those plans were thwarted when she learned that even a simple haircut would interfere with the delicate calibration of the mask she wore to help target her radiation.
“I was devastated,” she says, but on the last day of radiation, she and her husband celebrated in part by shaving off her remaining hair. Says Forrest, “I was proud to be a bald survivor.”
During her recovery, and still sporting a bald head, Forrest got an invitation to be a part of a good friend’s wedding. She reached out the American Cancer Society for help getting a wig.
“I was surprised at how good it looked,” she says. When another friend later invited her to take part in Relay For Life, the Society’s signature fundraising event, she welcomed the chance. “It was very exciting to walk the survivor’s lap and donate money to help find a cure.” She was one of the only people who had faced brain cancer there to take a victory lap.
Moving On and Facing a New Set of Challenges
More than 5 years after her startling diagnosis, Forrest has made a near total recovery and will celebrate her 35th birthday next month. “I am up to 99% of my normal capacity – some might argue that wasn’t a whole lot to begin with,” she jokes.
She also appreciates how fortunate she’s been. “I am lucky to have had a very fine neurosurgeon who removed it all. I am lucky to have a husband who has stood by me through this. I am lucky that my parents and extended family have supported me. I am lucky that I have had clear MRIs.”
Despite being cancer-free for more than half a decade, the shadow of the disease does still linger in unexpected ways. “As my husband was changing jobs, we applied for individual insurance. We knew that it would be a challenge given my medical history,” she says. “But I was turned down by every insurance company that we applied to. That is ridiculous; nobody asks to have cancer.”
Although the question of insurance looms, Forrest has been able to put her cancer in the rearview mirror and embark on another big adventure: motherhood. Today, she, her husband, and her 1-and-a-half-year-old son continue to thrive.
“I’m proud that I have survived this and have come to learn what is really important in my life,” she says. “I don’t have a lot of time for worrying because that just wastes energy that could be used towards doing something meaningful.”
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