Four years ago, Kristie McMillan had just started working as a neurosurgery nurse when the unthinkable happened. She had finished her third day of work, attended a neuroscience course, taken her dog for a walk, and then hit the gym. It was there that, after a run on the treadmill, she suddenly collapsed and had a seizure.  She was rushed to the hospital where she learned that she had a brain tumour. She was 22 years old.

“I was pretty confused and I called my work three or four times to call in sick because I couldn’t remember that I had already called,” says McMillan. “I think I terrified my boss.”

As someone with expert neurological knowledge, McMillan understood her situation, even through the confusion, well enough to know that her prognosis could vary dramatically depending on what type of tumour it was, and how far advanced. “I realized that I had a brain tumour, but I didn’t know what type, and that matters so much,” says McMillan. Some are non-malignant / low-grade and typically easier to remove, but others are very lethal.”

“Like an episode of Grey’s Anatomy”

“At St. Michael’s Hospital they did what’s called an awake craniotomy on me, which sounds like an episode of Grey’s Anatomy,” says McMillan. “It’s where they keep you awake during surgery so they can ask you questions as they poke around your brain. That was a very strange experience. I then had to wait three weeks to find out what type of tumour I had, and those were a very stressful three weeks.  In the end, of the four grades they can be, with four being the worst, I was diagnosed with a grade three.”

On average, 27 Canadians receive a brain tumour diagnosis daily, according to the Brain Tumour Foundation of Canada. Roughly 55,000 Canadians like McMillan are surviving with a brain tumour today.

There are over 120 different types of brain tumours, meaning that finding the correct treatment can be extremely complicated.

In part because she was so young, McMillan was fortunate to have good treatment options despite her tumour’s advanced grade. She also came to understand why she had displayed no symptoms before her seizure. “The type of brain tumour that I was diagnosed with is a called an anaplastic oligodendroglioma, which is a type that grows very quickly,” says McMillan. “So the first sign of anything being wrong for me was the sudden seizure.”

Take symptoms seriously

For others who may have undetected tumours of a less accelerated type, however, vigilance is the most important tool to ensure a prompt diagnosis and treatment. A partial list of symptoms identified by the Brain Tumour Foundation of Canada includes behavioural changes, dizziness, blurred vision, frequent headaches, hearing impairment, weakness, and cognitive changes. “You really have to stay aware, especially as you get older,” says McMillan. “Don’t write off symptoms like these as just old age. You should address it and see if something’s going on. A lot of the symptoms can be very easy to overlook.”

Following surgery and recovery, McMillan has thrown herself back into her life, but knows that she will need to remain permanently on high alert. “I’ve done very well, considering all that’s happened,” she says. “I’m back at work and I’m going to start my master’s at the University of Toronto in September, but I’m still not in the clear. I’ll never really be in the clear. I have MRIs every three months, checking to see if the tumour comes back.”

McMillan’s story, in the end, is one of great hope for those living with brain tumours. It is also, however, an important reminder that no one can afford to be ill-informed or complacent about brain tumours and their symptoms.