Facing up to brain cancer

For Amrit Gill, the support she got from the team at St. Michael’s was almost as valuable as the surgery that saved her life.

It happened on Monday, March 7th. The day before  had been a nice one. My sister and I, who live together, had a delicious dinner, watched some TV, and I headed off to bed. We were starting a new workout routine the next day. All of that, I remember. The following day, not so much. March 7th – the day my life changed forever.

What I learned from my sister is that when I didn’t come out for coffee at the usual time, she checked on me. And found me on the floor of the bathroom, semi-conscious, having vomited on myself.  She called an ambulance. During that time I had a seizure. The paramedics arrived as I was having another one, and rushed me to St. Michael’s Hospital, where I had a few more seizures. 

I don’t really remember much of that, and the next couple of days are like a jigsaw puzzle with a lot of missing pieces, memory-wise. Basically, though, they did an MRI and discovered I had a large brain tumour. A grade 3 glioma, which is not the worst news, but it’s a long way from the best. First thing’s first, they told my family, it needed to come out. 

My neurosurgeon, Dr. Sunit Das, was prepared to perform the surgery that Friday, but I wasn’t ready. You have to understand – I don’t get sick. I don’t need medicine, and I certainly don’t need brain surgery. Those are things I have always known about myself, and learning that I was wrong about them took some time. And then, as I began reconciling myself to the idea of surgery, I started looking around for second opinions on whether Dr. Das was the surgeon I wanted. 

Everyone I asked told me I couldn’t be in better hands. So I talked to him. I told him I had gotten second opinions. I told him how scared I was. And he was so nice. And so calm. And so reassuring. And he told me he wasn’t just a doctor treating a sick patient. We were in this together. That’s what I needed to hear, and that’s what I needed to feel. I wasn’t just an incompetent “sick” person whose brain was damaged … I was going to be part of the process to help put me back together. 

On the morning of April 29th, my sister and mom dropped me off at the hospital and I checked myself in. I spoke with the team about my incision, about the procedure and meds I would be on. I was involved, as I wanted to be. I was part of the team. My last memory before I went under is saying “Hail Mary!” for luck. What can I say? I’m a huge sports fan. I was throwing a football at the end of the game, hoping for the best. The surgery took six hours. I went home the next day. 

It hasn’t been very long, and I am still working through pain and fatigue. I am not out of the woods. My cancer is incurable and my tumour will return.  One way or the other, the rest of my life’s journey is going to involve brain cancer, starting with chemo and radiation. 

What I do know is that after six hours of surgery on my brain, I have a lot of precious time that I would not otherwise have had. But I also know that the motto I’ve clung to – “tough times don’t last, tough people do” — may not be as true as I’d like, because these tough times seem never-ending. So what am I going to do? I’m going to make sure that my journey, however many heartbreak moments it will contain, is as good and full as I can make it. My new motto is, as Nike says, “Just do it!” Whatever it is – brain surgery, multiple MRIs, chemo, radiation, whatever it might be – just do it! 

I am filled with so much gratitude for how Dr. Das and his team made me feel. Giving me the time I needed, listening to my concerns, consulting me. They even went out of their way to shave as little of my head as they could. Not a big deal, I know, but kind of a big deal. 

I would never want anyone to experience what I have, but if it happens, I hope they get the kind of care I did. I also hope my story can inspire others because as soon as I accepted my diagnosis, I was determined to do just that – inspire. My journey has just started and the first part has been a success. I’m going to take that win and, you guessed it, just do it! 

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