I started having symptoms more than a year before my diagnosis, which occurred just after Christmas, 2012. I’m an ear, nose and throat surgeon and I had never had headaches. I waited for a while, and when they didn’t go away, I went to an internist. They did a formal exam with the usual tests, but they didn’t come up with an obvious explanation. The headaches were irregular, so I continued with my work and sports, although athletically, my performance suffered. I have a lot of patients who have headaches who have to move on with their life with headache.
I also experienced other anxiety-like symptoms as well, but like the headaches, that was not usual for me. When they continued, I visited several other doctors, including a headache specialist and an integrative medicine specialist, but once again, we weren’t coming up with an answer. Although my doctors felt I needed to "de-stress" my life, I was convinced that something else was going on in my head.
On December 23 of 2012 I was on a bike ride with some long-time buddies (luckily, all three of whom were physicians). I have more than 150,000 miles of cycling under my belt, and I was trying out a fancy bicycle that I had hoped to replace my old one with. We were crossing the Clay Wade Bailey Bridge, and I went over the bridge absolutely as fast as I could go. My heart rate monitor was saying 140 … 150 … 160 … 170. And when passed 170, I had a grand mal seizure. Dr. Jay Johannigman, a UC trauma surgeon, called an ambulance and the rest of the guys took care of the bicycle. I went by ambulance to The Christ Hospital, where I’ve been Director of the Department of Otolaryngology for more than 25 years. I had a separated right shoulder and two broken ribs. They did a CT scan of my head, and it clearly showed something was wrong in the left temporal lobe. They didn’t know whether the mass was metastatic or primary. I was transferred to the Brain Tumor Center at the University of Cincinnati Neuroscience Institute, where I would see Dr. John Tew, who has been a good friend of mine for more than 40 years. After two days of extensive testing, it was determined I had a primary brain tumor and would have surgery on the day after Christmas.
Dr. Tew did the surgery at the UC Medical Center. It lasted six hours, and they removed a 2.2-centimeter tumor. Originally, they thought it was a stage 3 astrocytoma, but the pathologist determined that it was a stage 4 glioma, a glioblastoma. Dr. Tew said they got it all, and that I had a great chance at survival in spite of the odds. He essentially said, “You have a mission to show people that you can beat this and to set an example.” I started six weeks of radiation under Dr. Luke Pater at the Precision Radiotherapy Center and chemotherapy (Temodar) with Dr. Rekha Chaudhary.
I tried to make an effort during my radiation therapy not to be sad and grouchy. I brought in treats for the staff and wore silly outfits on a regular basis. On my last day of radiotherapy I showed up in a Superman outfit with a boom box playing the Superman soundtrack. I marched all around to the astonishment of patients and staff! I wanted to show that humor and positive attitude can make even difficult situations less scary.
I had my first 3-month follow-up MRI in April, and because I’m a surgeon they let me take home the scans. Unfortunately, I could see a tumor, maybe 2 millimeters. It was little, but there was no question there was still some tumor. I called Dr. Tew, and he said he would present my case at Tumor Board the next week. They knew I was willing to tolerate anything they wanted to do. For me, it’s my chance to be alive. Dr. Tew said they would return to the operating room and do a significantly more aggressive surgery in that area.
Before the surgery, they mapped my brain with the help of functional MRI. They watch the blood flow in your brain while you’re talking, hearing, seeing, thinking. This enables them to know where they can operate safely. Dr. Tew and Dr. Ronald Warnick teamed up for my second surgery. They went as far as planned in the left temporal lobe. I went home the next day and began the recuperation process all over again. I am now half way through my year of maintenance chemotherapy.
I was 60 when I got my diagnosis, and I essentially stopped working in December. Being a practicing physician requires a lot of stamina and full mental capacities. I am now focusing on the wellness part of my journey. I’m staying active, and I’ve pedaled over 2,000 miles of cycling this summer. I made my annual BOG (bunch of old guys) bike trip to Santa Fe. I also worked with therapists to improve short-term memory loss.
Meanwhile, my wife, Sally, also did a lot of research about diet, nutrition and lifestyle changes. She was my best friend and caregiver. Together we changed my diet pretty drastically. We didn’t go complete vegetarian, but my diet became much more plant-based than before. From breakfast through dinner, I ate low-inflammatory foods: protein smoothies, whole grains, fruits and vegetables, lots of green tea, etc. I tried to avoid high-fat foods, excessive sugar and alcohol. If Sally fed me foods I didn’t particularly care for, I’d smile and say, “mmmm this is great.” I also lost 18 pounds. Sally says I look better now than before my diagnosis, and combined with rest and exercise, this regimen has made my treatments very tolerable. I also have to say that we have been blessed with incredible support from my fellow doctors, family, friends and patients!
Am I doing the Walk Ahead for a Brain Tumor Cure? You betcha!! As Sally says, the UC Brain Tumor Center team has been amazing, and we like to support them however we can. The surgeries were very technical and they are giving me my best shot. I’m going to walk and Sally is going to run. Interestingly, we did the Walk Ahead last year before my diagnosis. That time it was in support of a family friend. This year we have a team – “Dr. Mike’s Mischief Makers” – and we're trying to be one of the fund-raising leaders. I’m hoping that a lot of my patients, employees and friends will join us. We may not have the largest team, but we will try to be the most mischievous!