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Deirdre - Brain Cancer

Deirdre - Brain Cancer

It's been six years since Deirdre was treated for brain cancer with proton therapy. Since then she's written a book about her cancer journey while also taking care of her mother who has Alzheimer's. Read this amazing follow-up to her original survivor story.

Can you briefly recap why you had proton therapy?

Because I had a medulloblastoma – and medullos like to travel to the spine – my radiation protocol demanded that I not only had to have my tumor blasted, but my entire spine had to be radiated as a precautionary measure. Since photon therapy hits the target area and then exits out the other side of the body – like a bullet – that meant that my face and every major organ would have been radiated as the rays exited. But with proton therapy, those rays – like a grenade – stop traveling once they’ve hit the target, causing minimal risk to the rest of the body. Reducing collateral damage was an appealing notion, to say the least.


Deirdre when she was first diagnosed.

What have you been doing since you finished proton therapy in 2013?

Upon finishing proton therapy, I had another nine months of chemo. When my entire protocol was finished, I was wiped out. Much to my surprise, I remained exhausted for a whole year as my body (and brain) absorbed the toxic beating it had received. My feet and scalp were surprisingly painful during this time, which was a byproduct of chemo and a brain biopsy. But I found GREAT comfort in taking long walks, working out, cooking, and spending my days digging around my garden, pulling weeds, trimming trees, and planting flowers. After spending endless days sleeping on my couch and watching TV, I can’t stress enough how recuperative it was to be outside and to use my body. It’s like I had to kickstart an old motorcycle every day, but as time went on, the old bike started running smoothly. Oh, and I wrote my book!

What inspired you to write your book? Can you tell us a bit about it?

While I was in treatment, I maintained my blog, recording every detail of my experience. This was great in many ways. Writing about my cancer journey helped me gain perspective on what I was going through, but more importantly, it gave me a chance to have fun and view it through a humorous lens. I really wanted to read about other people’s trips down Cancer Lane, and most of the memoirs I read were such downers. Hence, I wrote the book I craved – something that could make other people smile amid their tears.

"Brain Candy" is the memoir of my journey with cancer while raising my teenage daughter, tending to my mother, who had advanced Alzheimer's, and helping my husband start a new restaurant.

"Alright, Deirdre," I hear on the loudspeaker. A doorbell sound rings, which signals the staff to leave the room. The blast is coming. "Remember to hold absolutely still."

Then, Pandora pipes Imagine Dragons' song "Radioactive" into the speaker. And JUST as I hear a series of omnious-sounding low clicks and what sounds like horses banging at the gate, I sense the cannon pulling up to my head, I feel popping in my ears, I smell ozone, and I hear, "WHOA-OH-OH-OH-OH I'M RADIOACTIVE, RADIOACTIVE!"

Touche, I think. Nice one, universe. Very funny. (Excerpt from Brain Candy, p. 165)

Can you tell us how your mom’s Alzheimer’s and your brain cancer intersect in the book?

That was an interesting factor. Alzheimer’s runs rampant through my maternal family. So, as my symptoms came on, they mimicked my mother’s symptoms – dizziness, forgetfulness, confusion and fatigue. I honestly chalked up my difficulties to early-onset Alzheimer’s. Since there is no cure for that disease, I didn’t go to the doctor. I would sit around with my mother and make the best of our time together, as our brains drifted away from us. Once I learned I didn’t have Alzheimer’s, that in fact I had brain cancer, I was surprisingly relieved. Cancer can often be cured. I quite possibly could get my mind back. Not so much with Alzheimer's. But, as both of us struggled with our brain issues, it was an unexpected parallel and, in a strange way, it enabled me to be much more sympathetic to her mental decline.

You have a knack for making such a serious subject so funny at times. What part of your book did you enjoy writing most?

Truly, I enjoyed writing every bit of this story. But if I had to choose an aspect I enjoyed the most, I would say it was reliving my time with my mother. She was so funny and such a brilliant woman, even shackled by her illness.

Deirdre and her mother.

Do you have any advice for others dealing with brain cancer?

Yes I do! I enlisted the advice of an integrative doctor (Bastyr can offer referrals). He was able to offer dietary advice, helpful supplements, and alternative treatments while undergoing the deadly-toxic treatments. This is all in my book, “Brain Candy.” Also, a friend of mine organized a meal train, so every night friends and family would bring us dinner comprised of delicious, homemade, organic meals. That was SO helpful. Being outside – taking a walk, working in the garden – provided a nice break from medical facilities and TV. I eschewed the news and anything that might be depressing, and instead indulged in comedy of any kind. I felt it was tantamount to survival and recovery to keep a smile on my face.

You didn’t ask this, but I would like to add something...

Reckoning with my own death has had a lasting impact. I reconnected with so many people whom I have known, but people with whom I had lost touch. I developed a personal sense of spirituality that was heretofore nonexistent. And, perhaps most of all, I deeply appreciate every day that I’m still here, because now I have an urgent understanding that every day is a gift. Oh, and I laugh, whenever I get the chance!