The Brain Fights Back

I never once asked, “Why me?” Instead, I say, “Better me than someone else.” Every year more than 795,000 Americans have a stroke and 130,000 of them will die from it, according to the American Stroke Association. That’s one American who dies from stroke every four minutes.

I taught law at Harvard when I had the first of what would be seven separate brain surgeries to remove recurrent tumors and prevent further strokes. I have already experienced three strokes — one paralyzed me from the neck down for a time. The fact that I am writing this is not only miraculous, but it shows how the brain, even when under attack, fights back.

The American Brain Tumor Association says nearly 80,000 new cases of primary brain tumors will be diagnosed this year and nearly 16,000 people will lose their battle. There are more than 120 different types of brain tumors, and meningiomas are the most common. Ninety-two percent are benign. The rest are either atypical or malignant, like mine is.

I see setbacks as challenges. I even saw the initial brain tumor as a blessing to the extent that it was found before it killed me. It was operable and it was a one-time occurrence, supposedly. I saw subsequent recurrences as new obstacles to overcome.

Even with advances in technology, not much is known about the exact cause for meningiomas. It was thought they could be passed down genetically, but no one in my family had ever had one before. It is thought that persons who suffer traumatic brain injury through war, domestic violence, or car accidents are also at risk.

I looked into the possibility that the batteries in the headphones that I wore while running were passing a current through my head. I meticulously checked the location and contents of state and federal toxic waste sites, against cancer and brain tumor statistics in my area, and made a grid of the results but there was no correlation.

I did not use a microwave nor a cellphone. I ate mostly organic foods, drank filtered water, and hardly used plastic containers or wrap, so I ruled out pesticides, preservatives, and plastic carcinogens. I examined my life for unforgiven or unresolved traumas, and forgave others and myself.

The game changer was when I read about Dr. Judah Folkman’s research on angiogenesis, or the formation of new blood vessels. In 1971, Folkman reasoned that by cutting off the blood supply to tumors, a cancer could be starved into remission. Tumors give off chemical signals that stimulate new blood vessels to “feed” growing tumors with oxygen and nutrients, like copper, allowing the cancer cells to form new colonies or metastases. By the early 1990s, the American Cancer Society endorsed anti-angiogenesis therapy and tested synthetic drugs in clinical trials.

I decided to try to starve my tumors through this new, aggressive therapy. My doctors shrugged and said it was worth a try. I had my blood tested for C-reactive protein to measure the level of inflammation in my body and for ceruloplasmin, a copper-carrying protein, so that I would have enough empirical data.

I squeezed every possible milligram of copper from my food, drinking and bathing water. I stopped eating chicken livers, avocados, most shellfish, as well as beer and chocolate. I switched from drinking filtered or sparkling mineral water to distilled water. I installed a carbon filter in my shower head.

My subsequent MRIs have shown no new tumor recurrences. My blood test results show decreases in inflammation and copper. My doctors said to keep doing whatever I was doing. And I have. So far, the body has been fighting back, and each day signifies another battle won.

Laila Bramwell Yasin graduated from Vassar College and Boston College Law School, taught at Harvard Law School, and is a legal consultant in Boston. She is working on her memoir, “New Normal: It’s Not the Setback, It’s the Get Back.”

This article was originally published in the Fall 2015 issue of Brain World Magazine.

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