Blog by Rebecca Hunter
Ever since I was little and learned about the 50 states, there was a small part of me that always wanted to live in Texas. Even when applying for colleges, Texas A&M University was one of my top choices. In the end, I went where most of my friends were going: Arizona State University. At the age of 22 I moved to sunny California to be closer to my family. But there was still this small piece of my heart that wanted to at least visit Texas.
I’ve spent the last 10 years working for an amazing company – Marriott International. When an opportunity presented itself to come and help open the new Marriott Marquis Houston, I knew without a doubt that Houston, Texas was where I wanted to be and where I needed to be. Little did I realize that my life was about to completely change.
Houston: My new home, and my lifesaver
Call it fate, God’s will or whatever it is you believe in, but things worked out so that my mom was able to make the road trip from California to Houston with me. Plans were for her to stay a couple of weeks, help me get settled, and then take the bus back to Arizona. Less than two weeks after we arrived, I suffered my first seizure, which likely would have gone undetected if my mom hadn’t been with me. When I came to, I was confused and disorientated. After some back and forth, we decided it best for me to go to the emergency room.
After having a CT scan, I was told there was possibly something on my brain and I needed to have a MRI done. I was brought to the Mischer Neuroscience Institute at Memorial Hermann-Texas Medical Center (MNI) and taken care of quickly. While doing the MRI, the technician was kind and even let me listen to some music while he did his thing. A few hours later, I was woken up by Dr. Nitin Tandon, UTHealth neurosurgeon with MNI, who asked how I was feeling.
Before I continue, let me just say, I have been blessed with good health overall. So when Dr. Tandon told me I had a brain tumor the size of a golf ball that needed to be removed as soon as possible, I chuckled a bit and said, “Are you sure? A tumor in my head?” He showed me the MRI images, and there it was: this glowing, round shape that turned out to be a left frontal lobe mass in my brain. He stated that he would like to do an awake craniotomy to remove the tumor. All I could say was, “Let’s do this!” Dr. Tandon started arranging the appointments I would need prior to surgery, such as a neuropsychological evaluation and a functional MRI; introduced me to Dr. Jay-Jiguang Zhu, UTHealth neuro-oncologist with MNI, who would also be treating me; and scheduled my surgery for Sept. 29, 2016.
Throughout all of this, I maintained a positive outlook. I felt fortunate to be in one of the most innovative medical centers in the world. As they say, what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, and I had no intentions of letting this tumor kill me.
Sept. 29 is a date I will never forget: surgery day. I remember arriving at the hospital super early, ready to face the surgery head on. I remember being calm and optimistic that I would make it through the day. I remember everything right up until we started rolling out to the operating room. After that, the next thing I recall is being woken up in the operating room, in the middle of my surgery, as Dr. Tandon started removing the tumor. He asked me a few questions – if I knew where I was and what we were doing there – and I answered yes to all.
Dr. Tandon asked if I was ready to start. “Let’s get this party started,” I replied with a thumbs up. The doctors then started asking me questions from the neuropsychological exam in order to map my brain correctly. I remember being asked several times to name a type of pink bird. And when they asked me to name an animal that flies, I, of course, said, “a flying monkey.” Dr. Tandon asked if I was sure of my answer. I said, “Yes, haven’t you ever seen the Wizard of Oz with the flying monkeys?” Maybe it was out-of-the-box thinking, but I still stand by my answer!
As they worked on removing my tumor, I could hear the tool they used but could not feel anything. Once all was removed, Dr. Tandon gave my mom a quick call so I could say hi and then they put me back under anesthesia to put my skull back together.
My road to recovery
That first night in the ICU, I had to keep repeating to myself my name, my date of birth, where I was, the fact that I had just had an awake craniotomy, and that I was going to be ok. Two days later I got to go home and begin my recovery. I would get antsy at night and at times would concentrate on walking in a straight line back and forth in my living room, while repeating my little mantra. Slowly things started to get better.
Oct. 11 is another date I will never forget. I had a follow-up visit with Dr. Tandon and Dr. Zhu. They both said that everything was looking good. I had a smile on my face and was already asking when I could start working again. On this day, I was informed that the tumor was cancerous and was a grade 3 anaplastic astrocytoma . I asked some questions to get a better understanding of what this meant for me. I was trying to be strong and hold back the tears in my eyes while they answered. One tear eventually slipped out and one of the doctors gave me a tissue to help wipe it away. We talked about the next steps and that I would need to go see Dr. Angel Blanco, UTHealth radiation oncologist with MNI, that day to get some tests done and set up the radiation and chemotherapy plan.
After I left Dr. Tandon’s office, I ended up breaking down. I didn’t understand how I got to this point and how I somehow had brain cancer. None of it seemed fair. I dried my eyes and took a deep breath. My mind switched from me being a person who has cancer to me being a person who was going to beat cancer and come out winning.
The next six weeks consisted of 20-minute radiation sessions five days a week and taking chemo pills nightly. The chemo did cause some uncomfortable side effects, but overall it never got too bad. The worst part was when my hair started to fall out. One day while in the shower, I realized I was losing more than I had the prior days and cried for a moment. But then I remembered that I went into this with the positive attitude of winning. I made the shape of a heart with my hair that had fallen out and took a picture as a reminder to keep moving forward.
Getting back to life
The Memorial Hermann Cancer Center-Texas Medical Center was very flexible with my schedule because I was ready to return to work. The whole reason I came to Houston was to help open up this new, grand hotel – not to sit around my home. I felt motivated to live my life regardless of what medical challenges I was going through. My fellow coworkers were all supportive when I returned to work in early November. One of Bill Marriott’s passions is putting people first, and I truly felt put first by my team. I would do eight to 10 hours of work and then get my radiation treatments done. On Dec. 5, we opened our doors to begin the two-week training period for all of our hosts. It was such an honor to actually be there and be a part of something so marvelous. We rolled out the red carpet for all and made it a very special event for them.
One week later, I got to celebrate a special event of my own. On Dec. 12, I got to ring the glorious bell that signified I had gone through all of my chemo and radiation treatments. A few friends shaved their heads in support for me. Words cannot describe how their actions made me feel; it truly warmed my heart.
In order to ensure all the cancer is gone and does not come back, I now take chemo on a cycle of five days every 28 days. I also have a MRI done every other month, followed by a doctor’s visit with Dr. Zhu and Dr. Tandon. I will be on this cycle through December of this year.
Lessons I’ve learned
I have my good days and my bad days, but I try not to let my bad days bring me down. It is really frustrating when you are having a conversation with someone and can visualize the word(s) you want to say, but they just won’t come out. I used to be excellent at speaking at meetings and events. Now, I find myself holding back more often, something I am working on doing less of. There are days that I literally sleep all day on the couch or a quick walk with my dogs drains my energy. But, for the most part, my good days outnumber the bad.
Working in hospitality is always a fulfilling experience. Getting to meet new people and doing your best to provide them a wonderful experience means so much. Coming from this industry, it makes me a little more critical of the personal service I receive. My experience with Memorial Hermann has been nothing but positive and, more importantly, genuine.
It is not just my work, but all the other things I try and do as well that make my life more fulfilling. Kayaking down Buffalo Bayou, visiting Galveston and NASA, walking around Memorial Park, riding rides and eating fried food at the Houston Rodeo with my friends, and visiting the Beer Can House and the Graffiti Building are just a handful of the adventures I have been able to enjoy since this journey started.
Throughout this experience, I have learned that life is precious and can be taken away from you at any moment. I have also learned that it is not fair to judge others as we have no idea what they may be going through. As I approach the one-year anniversary of my surgery and reflect back, a positive attitude has helped me make it through this. I wasn’t scared to face the challenge head on and, most importantly, I wasn’t afraid to live. Don’t give up because you learn you have a tumor or disease. Embrace it, fight it and come out winning!