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.
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 Kent's Story.
- 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 power of positive thinking and living each day to the fullest is how I live my life now. I'm not going to waste any days, I'll tell you that right now."
How has your experience been at the Cancer Center, where did your cancer journey begin?
"I'll start from the beginning. Spring. I am a teacher and coach, and we went from a full-time teaching schedule to completely remote learning on March 13th of 2020. We were fully online; we weren't really prepared for it, we were thrown into the fire. We did what we could to accommodate families. I went from being on the computer for about two hours a day, to about seven or eight which absolutely exacerbated some issues that I was having. After a few weeks of remote learning, I started seeing white spots, and I started having depth perception issues. I was dizzy all the time. I would plan my Zoom meetings with my students around my symptoms. I would have to lay down for 10 to 15 minutes in between classes just to try to reset."
"Finally, one night I was talking to my wife and said, 'Something doesn't feel right, it's probably from being on the computer.' I bought some blue light glasses hoping that would help. Then when May came around, I started to get really, really dizzy and fell a few times. My wife told me I said, 'I feel like something is pressing on my brain and my eyeballs.' Come to find out that was exactly what was going on."
"My in-laws live about five minutes from South Shore Hospital so that's where I went. I thought it was going to be a quick night. I went to the ER, and they said that I probably had vertigo. But before they did anything, they wanted to do an MRI. The MRI machine was not available that day so a neurologist came in and checked me out. She did a quick exercise with me, and it brought on my symptoms just like that. And you could see it in her eyes that she knew something was wrong. She talked to the head ER doctor and he told me that he did not think it was a good idea for me to go home that night. I wanted to go home and come back the next day to get the MRI, but the doctor said, 'I would feel much more comfortable if you would just stay here for the night.' I looked at her, and I asked her if she really thought it was a bad idea for me to leave and she said, 'I have no idea what's going on, but I know it's not good.'"
At that point did you have any idea what was to come?
"No, I did not, but at that point I decided that I would stay at the hospital for the night. I ended up getting into the MRI about 9:30 that evening. A neurologist came in around midnight to chat with me. She turned on the light and she told me that I needed to call my wife right away. She told me that there was no way she would wait until the morning to tell me the news, so she let me know that I had a massive brain tumor in my right frontal lobe. She said she wasn't sure what type of tumor it was yet and that she would have to bring it to the tumor board to determine that. I was in shock, but I had a roommate who had had cancer before, not a brain tumor, but he was such a nice guy and we ended up talking for about two hours. I guess I thought that there would be medication that I could take or something. I was very naive about the whole situation. I had never really been to the hospital or had any issues in my life. At about seven the next morning, a different neurologist came in and said, 'Sir, I need you to call your family right now, you need to have brain surgery as soon as possible. You're probably going to have a craniotomy. We think it's a meningioma which is not typically too bad but we do need to get in there and get this thing out. It's rather large.' There must have been a reason that they did not show me the MRI until much later; this tumor looked very scary."
"They said that they could get us into surgery the following Wednesday at Tufts. All of this was so new to me, to my in-laws, to my wife, to everyone around me. We ended up doing some research and found out that the surgeon had only done a few brain surgeries. That kind of scared all of us. My mother-in-law was reaching out to some of her friends who are nurses, and one of her friends was a nurse for Dr. Brian Nahed at Mass General Hospital (MGH). She ended up contacting him and sending him my MRI and he came and saw me. At the time I was thinking, 'I just want to survive, I want to have this brain surgery, especially during COVID times, at MGH.' Dr. Nahed had been doing this for a long time and told me that I did not have a meningioma, but rather a glioblastoma which is malignant. I'd rather have any other brain tumor then a glioblastoma. Dr. Nahed said he wanted me in at MGH the next morning and that he had cleared his schedule for the next day to do my surgery. They sent me via ambulance to MGH from South Shore Hospital on Sunday night, and on Monday morning I was in surgery with Dr. Nahed."
"Dr. Nahed said, 'I left a massive hole in your head. The human body is amazingly resilient, but you will have to take it pretty easy.' He took out 100% of the visible tumor, but in actuality he took out 92% of the actual tumor. He said he couldn't mess with that part of my brain too much because it would have involved potentially inhibiting my memory. Some of the tumor was intercrossed with some blood vessels that were attached to my right leg's mobility, so Dr. Nahed said he wasn't going to mess with my ability to walk. He said we could always do another surgery down the road, but he didn't want to compromise my quality of life right now. He is a consummate professional and saw the surgery all the way through."
"Dr. Nahed literally saved my life. He's amazing. He has two kids of his own who were doing remote learning, and he told me he believes that remote learning actually saved my life. He explained that most of his patients have a stroke or a seizure. I think the slow onset of symptoms saved me. While I believe the magic happens in the classroom (I didn't get into education to be sitting on a computer all day), in this case, I am very grateful we were remote."
"After the surgery I was out of the hospital in three days, and I took about a month to recover. Then I had to get right into chemotherapy and radiation. I did proton radiation therapy. Thank goodness MGH has proton radiation because the side effects aren't as bad as regular photon radiation. I got almost a month off, and then the rest of my medication plan was every fourth week I have five days of double chemo. I can take it at night, so it doesn't affect me as much. It's still a punch in the face. I did that through March. Six sessions of the everyday chemo for five days every fourth week and that's the end of my medication plan."
Is at home chemotherapy due to COVID?
"No, my chemo is an at-home medication. I still have to go to MGH for blood work but I don't have to go in every day."
"Dr. [Deborah] Forst went through the pathology of the tumor with me and my family during a remote visit. I had a grade 4 glioblastoma with an IDH mutation. It has a negative connotation. The IDH mutation bodes well for someone with my diagnosis; an IDH mutation is what you hope for. She was talking us through it, telling the family what it was all about and what my life was going to be like going forward. With my prognosis, there is no way to say how long I have to live. She has patients who are five, ten years out with this diagnosis. We are making so many strides with cancer right now, you just have to have faith, stay strong, have a positive mental attitude."
"Ten days after the surgery I was at home, and I was starting to feel better. Then I started to get a cramp in my left leg. I have been a runner my whole life and coached cross country and track. I chalked it up to laying down, resting too much. The last thing Dr. Forst asked us before we got off the computer was if I was feeling any other side effects. I said, 'Yes, I keep getting this cramp in my left leg in my calf, it's driving me nuts.' I could see her eyes getting white, she asked me to go to the ER right that minute. She thought that I had blood clots. I wasn’t expecting that. When I was at the ER, I immediately got an ultrasound and it showed that I had a lot of blood clots. I went immediately to MGH, and was put in the Neuro ICU. It turns out I had multiple pulmonary embolisms in my chest. They monitored me closely for four days. The doctor told me that one of the reasons I did not feel all of these embolisms was because of my background as a runner, and how strong my lungs were from that."
"This summer my superintendent was so good to me. We didn't have a graduation for the seniors until mid to late July. I was able to speak at the graduation which was pretty awesome. I worked on that for a long time. I was then faced with a decision whether I should go back to school or not. I've been teaching for 17 years, I had enough sick time saved up to take some additional days. With COVID, some students at my school had the opportunity to go fully remote, and I was able to teach them totally from home. I also still wanted to coach. I chatted with the oncology team, my wife, and my family. I wanted to just go back to normal. Dr. Forst was so good. She told me, 'Kent, stop trying to be a hero. I know that's who you've been your whole entire life, but you've got to do what's best for you and take care of yourself right now.'”
Any advice you would give to yourself or someone else going through this?
"I think there are two ways to look at cancer. I've looked at it from both perspectives and one of them is, 'Woe is me.' You're allowed to be sad; you can cry. I still cry. I still get sad when those bouts of realization hit me. I have been in denial. But then there is also another side of it. The side where your life changes significantly. I will never be the same because of this. There are so many people who have reached out to me after this was over. I feel so blessed. A couple of my colleagues set up a GoFundMe page, and the generosity that was shown almost scared me. When something like this happens in your life, you realize who your friends and your family are. That whole periphery of people in my outer circle was way more than I was ever expecting. It got me through the summer. The power of positive thinking and living each day to the fullest is how I live my life now. I'm not going to waste any days, I'll tell you that right now."
The power of positive thinking and living each day to the fullest is how I live my life now. I'm not going to waste any days, I'll tell you that right now.
This interview was conducted in May 2021 and has been edited for clarity.