Barbara K. Lipska had already survived two encounters with the dreaded “C” disease when weird things started happening to her brain. In 2009 she fought off breast cancer, undergoing a mastectomy of her left breast, and then, in 2012, she defeated melanoma, or so she thought. That’s the trouble with cancer; you’re never really “cured.” There’s always the chance that it can metastasize somewhere else in your body. For Lipska, a neuroscientist who specializes in studying mental illness, the disease came roaring back in the most ironic of places: her brain.
The first sign of trouble for Lipska, an unbelievably fit woman who participated in numerous triatholons, began the day her right hand disappeared. Of course her hand was still right there at the end of her arm, but she couldn’t see it or anything else in the bottom right quadrant of her field of vision. When you’re having vision problems, there are only two possibilities: there’s either something wrong with your eye or with your brain. A trip to an ophthalmologist eliminated any problem with the eye; an MRI confirmed tumors in the brain.
That was the beginning of a remarkable journey through experimental treatments and a descent into something like madness. Fortunately for Lipska, she was able to get into an immunotherapy trial that consisted of four drug infusions, without which she likely would not have survived. But, shortly after the second infusion, things started to get weird, not so much for her, but for everyone around her. She started behaving differently, like an extreme version of herself. Always driven and logical, she became cold and impatient to everyone around her. She screamed at her beloved grandson for no reason and found fault with everyone on her staff. She reduced her daughter and husband to near-tears with her unprovoked anger and impatience. She began ranting to anyone who would listen about how much Amtrak sucks.
To be fair, Nicezy19 is with her on that!
As a neuroscientist, Lipska would have recognized these reactions as symptomatic that something was going wrong inside the brain if it had been happening to anyone other than herself. She explains, “The inability to recognize my own impairment is often observed in people with mental disorders. Known as anosognosia, or lack of insight, it’s a feature of many neurological and psychiatric conditions.”
You would think that the people around her would have noticed the red flags, but because she hadn’t become a completely different person but rather, in her own words, a caricature of her worst traits, it was easy for her loved ones to explain her behavior as the result of the extreme stress she was under. I did wonder that her family kind of rolled with it when she started accusing the local pizza take-out place of poisoning her and terrifying the pest-control guy with accusations of a conspiracy, but I have to remember that they, too, were living under a crushing weight of anxiety. When Lipska finally underwent a new MRI, the scan showed 15 new tumors in her brain, for a total of 18. While her family reacted with shock and even the nurses fought back tears, Lipska received the news stoically.
The number and location of tumors in Lipska’s brain solved the mystery of her strange behavior. The frontal cortex was severely swollen and riddled with tumors. As her daughter put it, her brain looked like “a loaf of raisin bread.” Given that the frontal cortex is instrumental in expressing emotion and exercising judgment, one can see why things went off the rails for Lipska.
Off the rails, like Amtrak
As you have guessed by now, Lipska lived to tell this tale. Steroids reduced the swelling in her brain and radiation eventually eradicated the tumors. The most incredible thing about her story is that eventually the memories of how she behaved during those months of madness came back to her. She writes, “I lived through a terrifying dive into brain cancer and mental illness and emerged on the other side able to describe what had happened to me.” Her opinion piece for the New York Times became the foundation for this book.
This book freaked me out the same way watching Still Alice still convinces me I have early onset Alzheimer’s every time I misplace my keys. I was diagnosed with breast cancer six years ago, and while it was caught early and I’m assured the likelihood of it metastasizing is relatively low, I was pretty relieved when I read that it was Lipska’s melanoma and not the breast cancer that had resulted in the brain tumors.
Me (I’m not proud of it)
In conclusion, cancer continues to suck. Can I get an Amen?