The doctor said, in his most somber tone, “You have three brain tumors, but I’m really only concerned with looking at one of them. The other two seem insignificant.”
“Like Destiny’s Child?” I somberly said while mimicking his tone, proving I have no idea how serious things just got.
I don’t blame myself for making light of what quickly became a very critical medical moment where my whole life would flash before my eyes, I still blame myself for thinking the doctor would understand the complexities of Destiny’s Child membership in the 2000s.
In 2009, when I woke up with a ringing in my ear that didn’t disappear for 6 hours, I did what any logical Jewish person would do – assumed I was dying and made an urgent doctor’s appointment. When my doctor explained a shot of cortisone would ease what he thought was just inflammation (which it did), I sighed in relief and awaited the next small physical ailment that would throw me into a tailspin (a month earlier I Googled “rickets” when I thought my bones seemed tired). Knowing my tendency towards hypochondria and my overall state of panic, my doctor was smart enough to suggest that the ear ringing might be a blessing, since it allowed my insurance company to pay for an MRI/brain scan, which he explained is always a good thing. “Why not?” he asked. “It’s available to you and they’re usually expensive.” And although this theory would be awful when discussing many things (drugs, mail order brides, pet mountain lions), I understood the logic and went with it.
I won’t complain (I will), but an MRI is basically like having the world’s worst Dubstep DJ play inside of your ear, all while you can’t escape. It’s like if Skrillex held you hostage in a large test tube. It’s not fun, but tests never are and I knew this going in. I assumed the procedure was purely because everyone loves a deal and my insurance company thinks a ringing ear deserves a coupon, so I walked out of the office like it was any other insignificant check-up and went back to my everyday life.
When a nurse called me two days later to let me know the doctor wanted to go over the results, I halfheartedly listened and said, “Sure, put him through.” She explained he was very busy today and needed to set up a time I could come into the office. This time, like a clueless 3rd grader who keeps asking questions about the stork even after he watches porno, I reasoned with her, missing the point completely. “Well, if he’s so busy, let’s make it even easier by doing it over the phone,” I suggested without a clue. Her voice got lower, to a pitch that quickly unveiled that things were about to suck, and the words “Listen, you need to come in,” rang in my ear over and over, making me wish I could get another quick cortisone, or black tar heroin, shot.
I knew this wasn’t good. He set up the appointment for 6 PM, knowing most of the nurses would be leaving for the day, allowing a 28-year-old man to cry in peace without the worry of seeming feminine. I readied myself for a death sentence and watched the doctor’s mouth move as he explained the three “white spots” found on my midbrain, a central section in charge of involuntary actions like sleeping, walking and alertness. So, no big deal, just totally ESSENTIAL ACTIONS NEEDED TO LIVE. It all got rather blurry at this point, but I found out quickly that they were inoperable, since their placement assured us, if we got too close, I’d become a vegetable. He suggested it was time to see a neurologist, almost like I just finished Super Mario Bros. 2 and it was time to play the harder one where he dresses like a squirrel. But no matter what he said, I heard it was time to go home and decide what I wanted on my tombstone (I went with “Jensen Karp: Someone call David Blaine please”).
For the next two years, a lot of theories flew around, but MRIs every 3 months and a brutal spinal tap had a lot of doctors concluding that the white spots were lesions, each marking early signs of Multiple sclerosis. You could only imagine the Richard Lewis-esque spirals I fell into, experiencing panic attacks every time I remembered that this was all happening purely because I had ringing in my ear once. Doctors warned me, if I woke up one day and saw two of everything, I was to hurry back to the hospital, as if I would cook a quick breakfast, watch Kathie Lee and Hoda’s hour of the Today show, then jog over, all while seeing double. I was scared shitless and lived this way for quite some time.
About 6 months ago, things changed though, and that’s when my ill-timed Destiny’s Child joke bombed. After years of tests, comparing results and watching the white spots sit stagnant, my MRI technician and doctor diagnosed me with brain tumors, which in all honesty, at the time, was both the worst case scenario AND the best case scenario.
My family is riddled with cancer. In my immediate family, we have just under a dozen cases, and keep in mind – I’m an only child. My father had died a year earlier from his second bout with lung cancer, so if your office has a Cancer Pool, I’m a good pick (also you work with jerks). I’m a serious candidate and I know it. My family is to cancer what the Kardashians are to black boyfriends. But the doctor convinced me to look at cancer in two different ways – sure, it can possibly kill you in 5 days flat, but it can also stay undeveloped your entire life, sitting there quietly, never affecting any aspect of your existence. He and the Brain Trust board of directors at Cedars Sinai (which exists) all seemed to agree my spots seem harmless. Although one assh**e kept MS on the table, things are looking pretty satisfactory for this guy living with brain tumors. My doctor even thinks these might be juvenile tumors that I had as a kid, that stopped developing in the 2000s (like Papa Roach), but because I’ve never had an MRI before (or a coupon to afford it), we’ll never know. But thank God we didn’t catch it when I was young, because my mother would’ve never let me leave the house, forced me to wear a helmet and the only interaction I would’ve had was when I politely asked someone to inflate my bubble again.
We’ll never be able to test the tumors for cancer, because it’s location doesn’t allow for a biopsy, but I’ll get scanned every three months, looking for growth or multiplication. And if it does do either of those things eventually, or I do wake up and the world looks like I’m the star of TRON, then we’ll radiate them and I’ll get a shit ton of Edible Arrangements sent to my house.
It’s been an insane few years. I was always a fan of Nip/Tuck, but I never wanted to live in an episode. I actually kept this whole story to myself basically until the last few months when doctors started to seem optimistic that the tumors aren’t growing, and may never do so. And now I kinda just want to tell everyone all the things I’ve learned.
Like, get an MRI if your insurance will help with the bill. I just met someone else in my age bracket who had a tumor removed from his brain and he believes neurology is the new dentistry, where the more check-ups and x-rays we get, the better off we could be for the future. Having a frame of reference, even just one other snapshot, would’ve saved me a lot of pain and anguish.
Also, don’t trust cell phones. I know it’s not for sure, and some studies show no correlation, but remember, people were smoking on airplanes 30 years ago. And I don’t even want to think about lobbyists involved in these studies. Let’s just agree on this - having a glowing, roaming, sometimes steamingly hot device against your ear can’t be good, right? The cell phone is still young and EVERY doctor I’ve visited for my tumors has said, “I don’t put it up to my ear, so I suggest you don’t either.” Also, Bluetooth earpieces aren’t any better, not to mention it makes you look like an awful human being. And I don’t mean to just come down on cell phones because our current world is filled with possible contamination, pollution and new technologies that basically can cause anything. I don’t mean to sound like Howie Mandel here, but let’s just stay aware of our surroundings and it’s possible health effects.
Truthfully, it all comes down to awareness. The more we talk about our changing world and how it may, or may not, be affecting our brains, the better off we’ll be. Just knowing that tumors have been popping up more frequently in younger patients is worth all of us investing some research. Our environment isn’t getting any simpler, so let’s just keep our brains in the discussion.
After my last doctor visit, my mom excitedly listened to me explain the newest optimistic revelations. I went on about how he thinks these tumors could be done growing and in turn we’d have nothing worry about. She cried, excited, letting me know she prayed and knew it would work out. She even went as far to suggest these juvenile tumors may have actually helped me as a kid.
“Maybe these tumors are what make you so smart, Jensen,” my mom prophesized. “You were always gifted. They wanted to move you to the gifted program. They always said you were the real bright spot and everyone around you just wasn’t as good.”
“Like Destiny’s Child?” I asked my Mom.
Featured image by Logan Fitzpatrick