The individual interviewed for this illness narrative has given express permission for this narrative to be published on our course website publicly, Dr. Valerie Rock PhD. This individual understands that they can alter these permissions at any time. The interview subject of the following narrative has granted permission the use of her name and the content can be shared without a pseudonym; all other individuals involved will be assigned a pseudonym.
The interviewee is named Dr. Valerie Rock PhD. She will be referenced as Dr. Rock from here on out. Dr. Rock is forty-eight years old and currently resides in La Jolla, California where she is a clinical psychologist at Rock Therapeutics. Dr. Rock is married and has two children and is a close family friend of mine. She is a survivor of a meningioma brain tumor of over two decades now. The goal of the interview conducted was to answer the question: How does a serious illness, such as a brain tumor, alter one’s life and others’ perceptions of them?
A brain tumor is a cancerous or noncancerous mass or growth of abnormal cells that amass in the brain. Brain tumors can start in the brain and, if they are cancerous spread to other parts of the body. The brain tumor Dr. Rock had was a meningioma brain tumor. A meningioma brain tumor is usually noncancerous tumor that appears in the brain or spinal cord regions. The brain tumor accounts for 34% of all primary brain tumors and is twice as likely to be in women than men. Meningioma brain tumors usually cause changes in vision, headaches, hearing issues or loss, and seizures. This form of brain tumor can cause illness or death, but occasionally it is not removed due to it not causing any damage to the individual it resides in. It is still unclear what causes meningioma brain tumors, but some ideas are exposure to radiation or genetics but overall, the causes are widely unknown.
Dr. Rock first recalled the symptoms starting when she was in her last year of grad school at Alliant International University. She recalled especially when going on runs the feeling of “déjà vu and faces being distorted.” She told me, as she was running, she would see blurred faces or occasionally the reptation of them. This caused her to be very distraught and concerned due to these ongoing feelings. The original diagnosis was stress and anxiety from being in her final year of Grad School and working on her dissertation. A few months later she and her friends went to Las Vegas, Nevada to celebrate a thirtieth birthday for one of her close friends.
As she entered the party in the vibrant town of Las Vegas, she recalled seeing all the great flashed of lights, colors all over the walls, and music blaring so loud you couldn’t hear the conversation across from you. As the lights and sounds got to Dr. Rock, she remembered everything going dark. As Dr. Rock said, it just took a moment. A major seizure occurred in Dr. Rock’s brain therefore leading her to wakeup surrounded by concerned people, paramedics helping her, and friends tearful in fear. She was immediately rushed to the hospital where she recalled the second most terrifying moments of the experience in waiting for the test results to come back. Luckily and thankfully as she recalls the doctors uttered the words, “the best brain tumor you can have”, sending Dr. Rock out of a high anxiety state to a “business mode” perception and wanted to get her “ducks in a row”.
Dr. Rock’s official diagnosis was a meningioma brain tumor located on her right temporal lobe directly behind her optic nerve. It had been slowly growing for over a year and the mini déjà vu moments were simple partial seizures. There was no “reason” of why the tumor had grown, but Dr. Rock is at suspicion due to growing up in the Los Alamos region which is the birthplace of the creation and testing of the Manhattan Project, or commonly known as the Atomic Bomb. Her doctors told her this was not genetic, but her grandmother and her brother have also had meningioma tumors in previous years after Dr. Rock’s diagnosis which raises questions.
At the hospital, Dr. Rock had been overwhelmed by her partially intoxicated friends and within hours her parents, them just like everyone else were terrified to hear their little girl has a brain tumor. They had arrived from an immediate flight from Las Cruces, New Mexico. After the situation was explained to them that her brain tumor was not an immediate risk, they decided to head back to San Diego, California and begin the search for a surgeon. They eventually went with the first surgeon they met, Dr. Rock said in retrospect, “I wish we had looked around more just to see what else was out there”, but she is thankful the surgeon did an amazing job.
When major issues occur, people can be supportive, but people can also be extremely overwhelming. Individuals tend to forget that there is a person fighting these battles and not just a patient. Looking back, Dr. Rock was very grateful for all the letters of encouragement and the flowers and when asked about if this would have happened today, she stated it would have been less intimate to receive text messages and social media posts. A simple, loving card is worth a thousand text messages. She said to me the only time she felt truly overwhelmed was the night before surgery, her family had been stressing on where to go to dinner and she remembered the feeling of being so flustered thinking she had to oversee everything and broke down. Families tend to forget that it is not always the physical battle one deals with but the mental one too. She occasionally got overwhelmed by her mother’s strong “motherly” presence and hated being coddled and seen as different and not herself by her loved ones.
The most terrifying moments poured in with fears of loss of sight, loss of oneself, and especially loss of life when the doctor prepped Dr. Rock for surgery. To make matters worse, she recalled her surgeon saying, “air to the brain, never the same” which terrified Dr. Rock since she knew she was literally and physically putting herself at risk with this major surgery. The fear of surgery is always a legitimate fear. In a hospital-based data they found over the years from 1985 to 1988 and 1990 to 1992 which was only a decade before Dr. Rock’s surgery, “The most common histologies were glioblastomas, astrocytomas and meningiomas. Five-year survival rates for these tumors were 2%, 30% and 70% respectively” (Surawicz, et al., pg. 151). These numbers show there was still a 30% risk that a meningioma can cause death. She feared the doctors messing up and cutting her optic nerve, the doctors slipping and poking something and of course the possibility of never waking up. The surgery lasted around 6 hours and she awoke to the “worst and most painful day of my life” due to her head “being hit nonstop by a hammer”. She recalls one of her first comments to her brother was, “OMG WORSE HANGOVER EVER”, the recovery process had officially begun. Her family has never failed to recall this line.
The Recovery and Integration
After her surgery she stayed in the hospital for about four to five days. She recalled the overwhelming pain she had felt laying there, “it was like someone was hitting the side of my head with a hammer” Dr. Rock stated. When I asked her which day was the worst, she said without hesitation, the first day. She was finally cleared to head home. When describing the journey, you could feel the sense of hope in her voice when she mentioned finally leaving the place she had been stuck at for so long and returning to a place of comfort. When Dr. Rock returned home to her apartment in San Diego, she told me about her three main caretakers throughout this ordeal. The first caretaker was her mother who stayed with her for about two weeks before heading home to New Mexico. The second caretaker was her boyfriend at the time who checked in and helped frequently. The third caretaker was the most important. It was her very close friend Hillis (pseudonym used to protect identity). Hillis was there doing everything she could for Dr. Rock and kept her in check because Dr. Rock would be too stubborn to just sit “still and heal”. According to a study completed by Alessandra Petruzzi and others, “The psychological burden induced by brain tumor is profound both for the sick person and for their own family. This particular tumor not only impacts patients’ quality of life, but also reduces seriously the caregivers’ quality of life” (Petruzzi, et al. pg.1105), stating both the caretaker and the patient are at risk of mental health issues if one can’t support the other. They found in their study that, “If caregivers’ anxious or depressive symptomatology that impacts their quality of life, making them more helpless, frustrated and less able to handle the situation of disease and caregiving situation” (Petruzzi, et al. pg.1109). This study supports the idea of the need for a positive and prepared caretaker in which Dr. Rock had with Hillis.
As time progressed, I asked Dr. Rock what drove her most to returning and integrating back into society and she stated two major themes: First, a return to being herself. A vibrant, outgoing and not stuck at home being the patient. Second, to complete her dissertation and walk across the stage on time for her graduation. At this point she wanted to prove that she can beat a brain tumor while also graduating from grad school and completing her dissertation. Dr. Rock recalled some days being tougher than others saying, “certain days I could write a whole section, while others I just focused on buffing my references”. As she focused on her work, she also began walking outside and eventually driving to the store to just be “normal’ for a little while and get groceries. While doing this she found she was quite frustrated that she couldn’t do quick and easy math like before the surgery, but this slowly returned.
Another major aspect Dr. Rock included on her recovery was mental health and faith. Dr. Rock throughout this journey said she had always been close to faith being raised in a “catholic Hispanic household”, but she really found this connection throughout her recovery. She stressed to me the importance of believing in a higher power in order to get through this incredibly difficult journey along with the attempt to understand why this happened. Along with faith, mental health played a huge aspect in the recovery. As required for her degree in psychology, she had to complete a certain number of hours of therapy. She claimed this was a major motivator and helped for returning. Finally, she was recommended to a brain tumor support group. This brought forth many emotions when discussing it, from hope to sadness. She told me she reflected on why God let her off “so easy’ compared to others and asked the usual “why me?” line, asking why did I live to why did this happen. The support group, which Dr. Rock eventually ran until last year, brought a new visual on life for her and her recovery. This seemed to be the second to last piece of her recovery for helping herself and others through this strenuous journey.
Her final step in the return to her was graduating and finishing her dissertation, she was able to say, “I graduated, wrote my dissertation, and beat a brain tumor all at once”. She had associated the dissertation as her finally overcoming the brain tumor, giving her the “back to normal feeling” and the graduation seen as, “walking across the stage”, as she mentioned many times as her ceremony for winning and beating the tumor. Up to this point Dr. Rock’s life had been on pause, she changed that and succeeded at recovery and winning.
Today, Dr. Rock is healthy and full of life thankfully. She has been married for over a decade and together they have two children who are amazing kids and resemble that same love and drive their parents share.
Dr. Rock had proven she was determined to overcome this illness that projected her life into a different direction than previously planned and finished her dissertation along with walking across the stage receiving her diploma. She had accomplished her goal, but when thinking of the feeling of it being “over”, she said it has never truly felt that way since she had to be checked annually for the rest of her life to ensure nothing ever regrows. She stated the fear always remains so “I never had that, it’s finally over feeling”. She realized, after having tests done yearly, something like this never truly ends.
Dr. Rock’s life changed directions within the matter of one night and today for those around her it is a distant memory, but for Dr. Rock, it’s a lingering one. I asked Dr. Rock the main question at stake, “How does a serious illness, such as a brain tumor, your life and perception of other onto you”, she took a moment and discussed the implications of life. When looking back at this, she is astonished this happened over two decades ago and stated that “even though it is cliché, it made me stronger”. She jokingly, but in a serious manner stated, “childbirth recovery was nothing compared to brain tumor recovery!”, which shows you how difficult this process truly was for her. She discussed how today her parents and family do not mention it, as if it was a past ghost never to be recalled. Regarding her friends, they simply joke about it if she ever has a “blank” moment, but overall, it’s not a topic of discussion. I sat there thinking how at one point you go from this patient, this person with a terrible brain tumor occurring while being the center of attention to simply another person as if it never happened in the outsider’s eyes. I look back in comparison to my own major injuries on how for a moment, I was the person with a broken knee to, “oh right that happened to you”. It’s a shocking moment to hear this because it’s such a huge part of your story, but a forgotten side note to others perception of you.
As Dr. Rock was explaining the changes in her life, she couldn’t help but bring up the support group again. She said the support group helped her, but also reinforced her survivor’s guilt, asking herself, “why did I survive” and recognized she had a new “lease on life” and now makes sure to never take that for granted. The support group would bring peace to her by helping others, but also a great deal of pity whenever a patient would never show up again due to losing their own battle. Dr. Rock explained those who came were helped, those who came and brought along positive energy and occasionally faith were truly changed. Dr. Rock stated those who really contributed and those who brought a higher power with them were the people who fought the hardest.
Dr. Rock’s life changed when this brain tumor occurred, it paused her life and gave her perspective that any day can be your last. A brain tumor among much illness’ is something you hold onto forever and gives you a changed and brand-new way of seeing your life and every day after overcoming it. Her main takeaway from her experience is, “don’t sweat the small stuff, everyone has pain and suffering, and nothing is end all”.
Petruzzi, Alessandra, et al. “Living with a Brain Tumor.” Supportive Care in Cancer, vol. 21, 2013, pp. 1105–11, doi: https://doi.org/10.1007/s00520-012-1632-3.
Rock, Valerie. Teleconference interview with Mahlon Everhart, 11 Nov. 2021.
Surawicz, Tanya, et al. “Brain Tumor Survival: Results from the National Cancer Data Base.” Journal of Neuro-Oncology, vol. 40, 1998, pp. 151–60, doi: https://doi.org/10.1023/A:1006091608586.
Kumar Karthik, et al., “What were your first signs and symptoms of a brain tumor image” MedicineNet, Sept. 2020. https://www.medicinenet.com/first_signs_and_symptoms_of_a_brain_tumor/article.htm