Kent thought seeing white spots and feeling dizzy was a result of moving his full-time teaching job online during the pandemic. Now he believes working remotely saved his life as he was able to get diagnosed quickly with a glioblastoma and have treatment at Mass General Cancer Center.
The Cancer Center’s Story Project is an effort to capture stories from our community of patients, friends, family, clinicians, and staff who have been affected by cancer in some way. This is George's Story.
- George had some pain in his neck and shoulder. After it became intense with additional symptoms, he was diagnosed with a large brain tumor. He quickly received treatment at Mass General Cancer Center and strongly believes that a positive attitude helps the healing process.
- "My focus has changed, I take every day as it comes, and feel more connected to others, especially my family and close friends. I try to 'stay cool' and look for the positive every day."
Tell me about your diagnosis.
"Like many, due to COVID-19, I had been working from home since the beginning of March 2020. By the end of March, I started to develop significant pain in my neck and shoulder. I thought it was muscle related from being crunched over a laptop. I saw my PCP for a virtual visit. He recommended a couple of different things mostly related to muscle problems. Over time, I started to develop ringing in my ear, so my PCP also recommended an ultrasound, thinking it was related to a circulation issue. As time went on, the pain got worse and worse."
"The week of July 4th, I was on Cape Cod with my family. I was still in intense pain. Every time I moved or changed position there was a blast of pain through my head. I had started to shuffle around the house like a much older man. My wife and family told me I was a barely functioning person. One morning I woke up, had a cup of coffee, and got sick right away. I would have gone to the hospital weeks earlier, but with COVID I had decided to hold off as long as I could. On the 5th of July, we went to the Emergency Room at Cape Cod Hospital. The doctor gave me a head CT, a neck CT, and ordered some more tests. About 45 minutes later, the doctor came back in and said, ‘Mr. Conti, I’m sorry to say this but you have a very large brain tumor. You need to be admitted right away.'"
"Twenty minutes later I had a spot in the fantastic program at Mass General Cancer Center. On Monday July 6th, I met the different medical teams and was informed that my surgery had been scheduled for later that week. I had a four-and-a-half hour surgery on Wednesday, and was home on Friday. It was an amazing turnaround. I’ve said this many times since, but the team of people at Mass General, specifically the surgery team and the nurses, were amazing – I know I received the best care possible."
"Dr. [Brian] Nahed was my surgeon. He’s an incredibly friendly and engaging person and a phenomenal surgeon. Under his care, my surgery was a great success - nearly 100% of the tumor was removed. Dr. Nahed saved my life."
"Later on, I would meet my oncology team led by Dr. Elizabeth Gerstner. She and her team have been fantastic! They are all very personable and are really helpful people. You can tell that they really care about the health of their patients and listen to and try to respond to their patients' concerns."
How did COVID impact your care?
"When the nausea started, I felt like I had to do something. I would learn that the tumor was very large and that my brain was compressed to the left side of my head. I had been to my PCP, an urgent care, and even a massage therapist and I just didn’t feel like I was getting anywhere. That’s what drove me to go to the hospital. When going to Mass General, I was concerned about COVID, but almost immediately it was clear that they had it under control and they reassured me that I was safe."
How has this diagnosis changed your life and impacted your family?
"So, there’s a lot of ways to answer that question. My brain tumor was a glioblastoma. The docs have explained to me that my body will try and grow that back. My focus is on not letting that happen! I have four kids, 2 in high school and 2 in college. As a family, we were going to do the things to prepare for the worst-case scenario; however, we would appreciate it and would prefer not to talk about life expectancy, statistics, or any of those numbers. We were, and are, approaching it day-by-day. Dr. Gerstner was very accommodating. She said we wouldn’t have to talk about that nor anything else that we didn’t want to hear about. We could stop our discussion on any topic and move on."
"I know it’s odd to say this, but one positive outcome of having cancer, if there is such a thing, is that it makes you look at and re-examine your life and your priorities. I remember telling my wife and kids after I was home from the hospital that I was going to be a different person. I was going to try to focus more on my family and try to spend more time together with them. Like many people, I would often stress out about work, travel or the life challenges we all face. By traveling around the world, I would also challenge my body with different time zones, lack of sleep and long flights. I can see now that that all adds up. Now, I’m not silly enough to think that stress and travel caused my condition, but I am betting that it all certainly didn’t help. Cancer has helped me see things in a different way. I really try to focus on healthy living, getting enough rest and not stressing out about things."
"You can’t go through something like this without it being a spiritual experience. I found myself thinking about things differently, and I felt myself becoming more 'connected and awake to life around me' in a different and more meaningful way. Even now, I try to start each day with a little bit of time by myself in quiet thought. Just trying to 'connect' and ground myself before getting sucked into the hustle and bustle of each day."
"I’ve also realized how important my connection to other people is. Early on while in the hospital, I immediately reached out to the people on my contact list who I realized were important to me. With my college friends, I asked them to keep joking and goofing around with me like we always do. Both they and I felt it was important to keep the laughs coming. I have learned that the cliché is true – laughter is the best medicine."
"Finally, very early on after my surgery, I mentioned to Dr. Nahed that I wanted to help others that were going through similar experiences if I was able to. I’ve had the chance since my surgery to speak to more than a few people going through the same thing. I share my story with them and hope that if someone finds something in my approach or story that they think might be helpful to them, that’s great!"
How has your diagnosis changed your family?
"It’s been difficult on my family, but they’ve been troopers. My wife has been my partner in this. She’s been my caregiver, my chauffer...she’s done everything. She’s been amazing! I wouldn’t be doing as well as I am without her help and support. But I know it’s taken its toll on her emotionally. It can’t be easy. The same for my kids. They are all different ages and were all impacted by this in different ways. When they saw me before the diagnosis and surgery in so much pain shuffling around the house, they were very concerned. Luckily, they look at me now and see someone who is doing much better. It makes them feel better. We have been lucky as things have gone well for me. There are many, many people who go through their fight with cancer and struggle to find the good days. Honestly, we have been lucky and blessed to have had a lot of good days, even after my diagnosis and surgery."
Would you like to offer up any advice to yourself or anyone else going through this?
"I just turned 50. What I would say to myself two or three years ago is, 'Pay attention: you’re getting older. Pay attention to sleep, nutrition, lifestyle, it’s all important.' In the hospital, the doctors told me that I could spend a lot of time looking at my lifestyle and trying to find where I went ‘wrong'’ but that it would be a waste of time. I would never know the exact reasons why I developed a tumor. Even with that, I would tell my past self that stress doesn’t help – just be cool. Think about your priorities, make sure you look at and value the special relationships you have in your day-to-day life and make sure you’re spending time with your family. That’s what I would say to myself."
"To others going through similar circumstances, I would say this: I know it’s hard. It's OK to feel bad about what you’re going through, that’s natural. But I believe that it is really important to stay positive and look forward to the better days to come! It’s hard, and I catch myself all the time playing out future hypotheticals in my mind. When that happens, I try to remind myself that nobody knows what’s going to happen tomorrow. Focus on the day you’re in and take care of yourself, try to connect with other people. It’s important to trust and build a strong connection with your doctors. You’re all working as a team together, all working towards the same goal. Above all else, stay positive, stay strong and focus on getting yourself back to good health!"
"Overall, I think I’ve been very lucky. So far, things have gone well for me, and I know that Dr. Nahed, Dr. Gerstner and the Mass General team have all had a big part in that. I’m really thankful for the care that I’ve gotten and know that no matter how things go in the future, I’ll continue to get good care from them all."
My focus has changed, I take every day as it comes, and feel more connected to others, especially my family and close friends. I try to 'stay cool' and look for the positive every day.
This interview was conducted in May 2021 and has been edited for clarity.