Neurofibromatosis II. Neuro – Fi – Bro – Muh – Toe – Sis. NF. NF2.
The first time we heard this word was the day I was diagnosed with Neurofibromatosis Type 2 (NF2). I had never heard the word before, and had no idea what it meant.
Initially, all we knew was that I had two large masses (meningiomas) covering a good portion of the right side of my brain, causing partial seizures on the left side of my body. I was admitted to SkyRidge Medical Center, in Denver, for observation with the understanding that I could have brain surgery as soon as the next morning due to the sudden nature and severity of my symptoms. In the meantime, I spent a great deal of time in MRI machines (thank goodness I’m not claustrophobic), and had more tests and conversations with specialists than I could count. It was a complete whirlwind.
We learned so much in those initial days; NF2 is incredibly rare; it currently affects only 1 out of every 30,000 people; it is typically hereditary. Since no one in my family had been diagnosed, it was concluded that in my case, NF2 was the product of a spontaneous gene mutation, which is even rarer.
Each of our children had a 50% chance of having it too. That was devastating. My reaction? I needed to see my kids. They had been staying with family while my husband, Josh, and I were at the hospital. I couldn’t get my arms around them fast enough. As soon as they walked in the room, I pulled them right into the bed with me and studied their faces. Was it possible that tumors could be lurking behind those cute little eyes? Had there been signs? Had we missed something?
Every night before I fell asleep, I would pray that they wouldn’t be diagnosed in the days to come. I didn’t pray for me. I prayed for them. I knew that I would find the strength to endure whatever came next as long as my children were safe from the monstrosities of NF2.
The only fool-proof way to confirm the diagnosis is by genetic testing, which can take several weeks. We called our pediatrician, and she put in the orders for our boys to see Genetics. Since they weren’t showing signs or symptoms of NF2, we would have to wait, one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do.
Unfortunately, I didn’t have the luxury of time on my side. Rather than starting the process for my own genetic confirmation of NF2, I was tested for characteristics of the disease. The hallmark of the disease is bilateral acoustic schwannomas (tumors in each of the ear canals). My MRI proved that I had one in my left ear. This causes balance issues, and will eventually lead to hearing loss in that ear.
The MRIs also showed meningiomas. At first, all the doctors could say was “several.” Then they said “many.” The final MRI report told us there were seventeen. SEVENTEEN little intruders hiding away in my brain. Thankfully, they all showed qualities of being benign, another indicator of NF2. But, they can still do as much damage as malignant tumors, and are often treated that way with forms of chemotherapy, surgery and radiation.
During one of several visits with a neurologist, I asked, “how long have the tumors been there?” He replied, “Probably most of your life.” I must have had a shocked and confused look on my face. He asked, “have you ever heard ringing in your ears?” My response was, “yes, doesn’t everyone?” Apparently not.
I soon realized not everyone loses their balance and falls over putting their shoes on; not everyone has headaches for five days in a row; not everyone slices their hand every time they use a knife; not everyone has over reactive reflexes as a child that intensify as they age. I had become so accustomed to these things that I didn’t even know they were signs. My body had been trying to tell me for years that something was wrong, and I had completely missed it.
Just when we thought we had finally wrapped our heads around everything, we were thrown another curve ball. Spinal tumors, often ependymomas, are another indicator of NF2. My MRIs showed them, too. I have six more invaders growing within my spinal cord; the largest one growing in my neck area. This is the scary one. Even if you’re familiar with my story, you may not know this. That bright white spot in the photo below can eventually cause paralysis from my neck down. The discovery of this tumor ended up being the reason I was released from the hospital. There was not a brain surgeon who would operate on me without weigh in from a spinal specialist first.
So, I was released, and connected to ‘the best’ neurosurgeon and spinal specialist in the area. We left the hospital with more questions than answers. We also left with the gift of time. Rather than being rushed into emergency brain surgery, I got to go home to my family. It was all I wanted. I had never been so grateful to just be alive.
I was working with one of the best neurosurgeons in the U.S., and I will always remember something he said to me during our first appointment, just a few days after my release. He said, “Nothing has changed. These tumors have likely been a part of you for the majority of your life. The only difference is now you know about them.”
He was right.
This is my story, and it is not over yet.
*DISCLAIMER: This blog documents my own experiences with Neurofibromatosis II. There are various forms of the disease, and every case seems to present itself differently. This blog is not intended to offer medical advice or counsel. Please refer medical questions to your team of doctors.