By Susie Kearley
When I met Debbie last year at a British holiday park (an all-inclusive vacation spot), she was wearing a pink wig and a lively smile. She struck me as the ultimate rock chick, swinging her inflatable guitar and having a wild time with her friends. The last thing on my mind was her health—but when we got talking, I learned that she’d recently had brain surgery and was celebrating her successful recovery.
Around six months after taking their marriage vows in a Church of England chapel, Debbie and her new husband’s promise to love one another “in sickness and in health” was put to the test when Debbie was diagnosed with a brain tumor. Her husband, friends, and family rallied to support her. Debbie’s remarkable ability to stay positive has been a real inspiration to me. She’s laughed about the drama that engulfed her life, joked about her appearance after the operation, and seen the positive side of everything. She really is a remarkable woman.
“For three years I’d been to see doctors regularly, complaining of daily headaches, sickness, dizziness, and double vision. They put it down to depression, vertigo, tinnitus, and severe migraines. They dosed me up on medication, but nothing worked and it was getting worse. So in November 2013, I gave up work to try to get to the bottom of what was wrong with me. I always thought I had a brain tumor, but I guess you always think the worst.
“Later that month the double vision became really severe, so I went to the optician and they told me to go to the Emergency Room immediately. I went to see a doctor instead and a junior doctor finally referred me for an MRI scan. Just after Christmas 2013, I had the scan and the results were alarming—I had an abnormality on my brain! They sent me to the Emergency Department again. It was scary, but I was relieved to hear that I wasn’t going crazy.
“I spent most of the Christmas and New Year holidays in the hospital while they did tests for a suspected brain tumor. That’s where I stayed until January 2, 2014. Mum spent New Year’s Eve with me, and we were doing the can-can dance down the ward and drinking nonalcoholic cocktails. Then on January 6, I received the news: I had a brain tumor. They said it was the size of a golf ball, located just behind my right eye—but the good news was that it would be removed on January 17. I was incredibly relieved!”
Hearing Debbie’s story, I was bowled over by her positive attitude and humbled by her relief at the diagnosis and her bedside celebrations. She could so easily have become consumed by a downward spiral of fear and despair, but there was a lot of praying going on, a lot of optimism, and a contagious sense of positivity.
Debbie recalled the operation: “The surgeon said he would cut a trap door into my skull to remove the tumor. It sounded pretty straightforward, but riddled with risk. The ‘trap door’ metaphor tickled my sense of humor, so we named the tumor Berk after a character from the 1980s cartoon The Trap Door, featuring monsters living under a castle.
“I was pretty upbeat and optimistic about the whole thing and was taken down for the operation around 9:30 a.m. I awoke eight hours later, which was a bit alarming as the operation was only expected to take around three hours. It turned out that the tumor was the size of an apple, not a golf ball, so it had taken longer to remove. My poor family and friends were frantic. They didn’t know what was happening.”
Debbie came out of the operating room with ugly staples across her scalp but a big smile. She was just relieved to be alive. Her ongoing positivity helped keep her immune system healthy, her mood upbeat, and supported her subsequent recovery. Soon it was time to head home.
“On January 21, just a few days after major brain surgery, I was allowed to go home. This was amazing news! My parents and husband took it in turns caring for me 24/7, and I had numerous guests and well-wishers. I was well on the road to recovery.
“Then one week after surgery, I had 46 staples removed from my head. I was so scared, but mum and the nurse kept me calm and it didn’t actually hurt at all. Fortunately, I know a great hairdresser—I now have an awesome comb-over, and I am also blessed with a lot of hair!
“By February 2, I was off the steroids and morphine, which was a big milestone. The drugs exaggerated my mood, making me hyperactive. I was so happy to be alive, but it meant I was having difficulty sleeping. I did a lot of talking, singing, and dancing around on my road to recovery. A few weeks later, I came off the anti-depressants too. They’d helped to numb the worst of what was happening, but I wanted to get back to being me again.”
A New Lease on Life
Bursting with a zest for life, Debbie found that her positive outlook, support from friends and family, and her unfailing trust in God paved the way for a healthy recovery. She progressed in leaps and bounds with an incredible positivity that was infectious to those around her. It’s been amazing to follow Debbie’s progress. I feel we could all do with being a bit more positive. She’s an inspiration.
“Since having the surgery and coming home, I’ve had a new lease on life,” she said, “I celebrated the New Year in June because I’d missed the New Year’s Eve celebrations. We hired a DJ and danced to Auld Lang Syne! My Auntie Janet made a Berk cake, depicting the character from the The Trap Door.
“I’ve got a new job working for a large bank, arranging training for new graduates and apprentices. I love it! It’s such a wonderful feeling getting back to some sort of normality. I have changed though. I am now the first person into the office and I look forward to coming to work. I have never been like that, so that’s definitely down to my new positive attitude to life.
“My hair’s grown back and seven weeks after saying Bye Bye to Berk—a grade 1 benign brain tumor—I was rocking out at a holiday park.
“Having a brain tumor was the worst and best thing that has ever happened to me. It really makes you realize that life is for living. So many people complain about tiny things, but they need to look at the bigger picture. There are so many people in a worse situation than me, and I have huge support from my family, friends, and even strangers. I have never felt so loved by so many people. My whole outlook on life has changed.”
Debbie is sure that her positive outlook during diagnosis and treatment helped with her recovery. “We prayed a lot and my Christian faith was comforting,” she said. “If I’d fallen apart it would have been even more awful for my family, but I had so much love and support around me it was hard not to be positive! After the operation I was in a lot of pain, but I was so happy that it was over and I was finally on the road to recovery. Every day I seemed to get stronger, which was a great feeling.
“Spending lots of time with family and friends was uplifting, and all the gifts, cards, and messages were overwhelming. I have so much to live for, so the only way was up!”
“Since my operation,” Debbie continued, “I have lost 19kg in weight, been a bridesmaid to my best friend, been on several holidays, attended numerous classic rock events, and in November I will become an auntie for the first time. Life is great! I am due to have another operation to have my gallbladder removed, but that’s a walk in the park compared to what I have been through. I will continue to celebrate, and looking ahead, we plan to start a family, enjoy life to the full, and have lots of holidays. Who knows what else is in store!”
I still find Debbie’s infectious positivity remarkable. It’s amazing how a positive perspective, supportive friends, and a firm trust in God can help someone face the most horrendous challenges and still come out smiling. I’m hoping to meet up with Debbie again at the same holiday park next year!
Susie Kearley is a British freelance writer and journalist, working for publishers around the world (@susiekearley).