Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Of brain tumors and judgment...

I just learned that Senator Edward Kennedy has been diagnosed with a malignant brain tumor. First, I would like to offer my most heartfelt support for Senator Kennedy and his family as they battle this situation with the spirit their family is known for.

Second, I must share a personal experience regarding the effects a brain tumor can have on a person - not me, but my mother, Patricia Susan Feldman.

My mother died when she was fifty-nine years old, after fighting her capacious heart out against cancer for a year. She was admitted to the hospital and diagnosed with cancer about a year before she died. The diagnosis was stage 4 lung cancer (almost always swiftly terminal). The cancer had already metastasized and the first place it spread was to her brain, where she had a large number of tumors, some small, a couple extremely large.

Lung cancer is often not caught until it spreads to another part of the body, and it often spreads to the brain first. In the year leading up to the diagnosis, my mother had not been acting in character, not at all. A person of great depth of feeling and sensitivity, she showed some strange emotional blind spots. A person of tremendous consideration, she acted in some very oddly unkind ways.

I would try to speak to her about what was going on, and I could not get through to her at all. This was particularly strange itself because she and I had a singular ability to communicate effectively with each other.

Meanwhile, my mother was working at her career as she usually did; taking care of her home the way she usually did. I wondered, along with other family members, if she were depressed (her own mother had died not long before my mother started to act unusually). But we never imagined that she had lung cancer or a brain tumor.

I was abroad, in India, when I received news of my mother's diagnosis, and the news that one of the large tumors in her brain was at the base of her skull and could easily rupture and kill her immediately. With the advice and help of my wonderful brother-in-law and sister-in-law who were traveling with my husband and me (my husband, his sister, and her husband are all originally from India, although all emigrated to the U.S. as adults, and now are U.S. citizens), I - along with my husband - cut our travels immediately, returning to the U.S. to see my mother.

I arrived at the hospital, direct from the airport, after the worst 20 hours of my life (that is how long the flight(s) took, Madras being a long way from northern New Jersey). I saw my father. I then went in to see my mother, who was receiving (and received throughout her illness) top rate care from the doctors, nurses, and other staff at University Hospital of the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey.

After speaking with my mother privately, it was time for doctors and nurses to check on her. One of the doctors took me aside and I had a chance to ask about my mother's brain tumors. My own work in the philosophy of mind and cognitive science meant that I wanted to know more about the location and effects of the tumors. The doctor explained that one of the tumors in my mother's brain was growing directly in the region that affects emotion and judgment guided by emotion. She explained, "That tumor has been there, cooking for a long time."


I cannot say this information was good news. But it was highly explanatory. It made sense of all the uncharacteristic conduct my mother had displayed over the previous year. She had not seemed herself. And she was not herself. For we are most essentially who we are when our cognition and our emotion work together to guide us, and the part of her brain that controls this intersection was precisely one of the places her illness had wreaked havoc.

It would be ridiculous for me to make any claims about Senator Kennedy's current sad illness and any symptoms of it: I do not have expertise or information enough to comment, let alone the right to comment.

But it did seem a moment to talk about brain tumors and the ways they can rob people of their best judgment.

And again, a moment to wish Senator Kennedy a complete triumph in conquering his own illness.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Who knows..but I would like to think that the ugly comment that Sen Kennedy made about Hillary was the result of his illness.


May 20, 2008 at 4:48 PM  
Blogger Grey said...

Thank you for writing so openly and movingly about your Mom. I know it's not easy.

My thoughts are with Sen. Kennedy and with his loved ones.

May 20, 2008 at 4:50 PM  
Blogger Double Jointed Fingers said...

Thank you for sharing such a personal story. It can't have been easy.

My thoughts are also with Senator Kennedy and his family. He has been the lion of the Democratic party for as along as I can remember. Blessed be.

May 20, 2008 at 6:14 PM  
Blogger Common Sense Gram said...

Thanks for sharing. I grew up in Ma and had the utmost respect for Sen. Kennedy. It pained and saddened and confused me when he backed Obama as it seemed so out of character for him to go against the wishes of the people of the Bay State.
My thoughts and prayers go out to the Senator and his family.

May 20, 2008 at 9:55 PM  
Blogger janicen said...

Losing a parent is difficult and painful. It is generous of you to share your story in order to remind us that it is essential that we look beyond the surface when those we love and respect exhibit behavior which is contrary to what we have known in the past.

Compassion must remain in the forefront of our lives and relationships.

May 21, 2008 at 11:15 AM  

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