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Brain Tumor Diagnosis

I felt exceptionally helpless.

It had been eleven days since Bryan exclaimed, "Christie, I'm sick," after which our lives seemed to move to warp speed. For about five months prior, Bryan had been experiencing minor dizziness, disorientation and occasional numbness of his face, tongue and left fingertips. He ignored the majority of his symptoms, thinking they were temporary results of an intense gym workout, overly sessions in the sauna, etc. Bryan is thirty years old, and for all intents and purposes, thirty year-olds don't get sick. I mean, an occasional flu or cold, sure, but not sick, right? Wrong.

When Bryan's symptoms didn't go away after five months, he knew something was going on. He shared his concerns with me and so began, what seemed at the time, an innocent schedule of doctor's appointments. Eleven days, three hospitals, five doctors and one mis-diagnosis later, we found ourselves sitting in a small doctor's office in a Santa Monica cancer clinic.

All we knew was there was a "mass" in Bryan's brain, but no one would tell us anything beyond that. We hadn't even seen the results to Bryan's MRI, so when a young, overly-sympathetic and grave-looking doctor told us it was time "to have a chat," we knew something was seriously wrong.

He told us that Bryan had brain tumor. My head started to spin while Bryan looked like someone had just kicked him in the stomach. The doctor said it didn't look good. It was big, over 4 1/2 centimeters to be exact, and inoperable because of its location in Bryan's brain stem. The doctor then left the office briefly and brought back a small brochure, "A Patient's Guide to Brain Cancer," and started thumbing through sections, highlighting certain sections and dog-earing pages.

I have a graduate degree from Northwestern University and I couldn't comprehend his medical language. "Glioma." "Low grade." "Inoperable." "Brain stem." "Low survival rate." The doctor's constant apologies, lack of eye contact and his spouting off of horrifying statistics made it all seem so terrifying and even worse, untreatable. Then Bryan asked the question, one in a million years I never thought I would hear anyone ask, much less my soon-to-be-husband: "How long do I have?"

"Six months to a year," the doctor replied.

My mind spun out of control. This wasn't happening. Not to us, not now, not ever. I was numb to the core and found myself sobbing uncontrollably. Bryan didn't say a word; he just blankly started straight ahead, unblinking and barely breathing. I so desperately wanted to rewind our lives by two weeks, when Bryan and I were talking about our wedding, scheduling happy hours with friends and just being normal 30-year-olds.

Instead, a doctor we didn’t really know had just given my fiancé a death sentence without talking about treatment, options, clinical trials, anything. His word seemed final, and with that, he sent us on our way. It was the worst day of our lives, and it all happened within one hour. We were beyond devastated.

The next few days were a blur, but suffice to say that Bryan and I rallied against what this doctor told us. Bryan was young, strong and was fit for a fight against cancer. So we did the best thing we knew; we got a second opinion. That second opinion came Dr. Keith Black at Cedars-Sinai, the hospital at which I was born and the one that was home to almost every doctor I had ever seen.

Getting a second opinion by Cedars-Sinai was the best thing we've ever done. Dr. Keith Black immediately assuaged our fears and calmed our nerves with his Zen-like presence and his belief that Bryan wasn't a statistic or a number, he was a person, a unique individual with an unrelenting desire to fight his cancer and respond positively to treatment.

While Dr. Black confirmed the location of Bryan's brain tumor and the fact that is was inoperable, he didn't give us a reason to fear him. Rather, he knew that we were ready to fight and he let us know he was on our team. He would give us the tools to combat Bryan's tumor, which included a handpicked staff of some of the nation's, if not world's, best neuro and radiation oncologists. Not to mention leading-edge cancer-fighting technology, like the Varian Trilogy machine (more on that later) and ongoing clinical trials.

So while Bryan's initial diagnosis was devastating, it wasn't the final word. We refused to let one doctor make us feel helpless, terrified and unable to fight. We sought out a doctor who regarded Bryan as a human being rather than a statistic, and it made all the difference in the world for us. Dr. Black told us he was going to help us "live with brain cancer, not die with brain cancer." That approach was what we wanted and what we needed. No matter what happened, Bryan and I were 100% confident we had found a team of doctors that had our best interests, and livelihood, at heart.

With that, it was time to fight.
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