Personal Reflection: In Honor of Brain Cancer Awareness Month

By Elias Hodge

May is Brain Cancer Awareness Month. 

In 2013, my mom was diagnosed with brain cancer. When I was first told the news, I felt as if all the breath was taken out of me. I didn’t really know what to think. I was 14 years old at the time. Her prognosis was not good because her tumor was in the midbrain. The best way to describe where it was is by taking your finger and putting it just past the top of your head, and then imagining a line to the center of your head.

The midbrain is very difficult to operate on, mainly because it is close to the brainstem. One wrong cut in that area and the patient may no longer breathe, speak, or any number of awful things.

After consulting a number of neurosurgeons in the Twin Cities, the Mayo Clinic, and the University of Minnesota’s medical department(s), she learned about Dr. Robert Spetzler, a neurosurgeon from the Barrow Institute in Phoenix, Arizona. Interestingly, one of the priests at St. Mary’s Cathedral in Minneapolis was a doctor who had worked with Dr. Spetzler. He told her about the Barrow and mom set up a consult to see what could be done for her.

My dad, an Orthodox Christian priest, explained to me what the church does for people who are sick. But I never thought anyone in my family would be sick enough to need services like Holy Unction or a special service asking for strength before a major operation.

I remember going to St. Mary’s Cathedral in Minneapolis before my mom left for surgery in Arizona. I was standing on the side facing an icon of Christ on the iconostasis, watching what was going on in the middle of the church. My mom was receiving Holy Unction from Father Andrew Morbey, while my dad was standing next to her.

My grandma was trying to take photos of the service on her outdated iPhone for her scrapbook. I didn’t really know what to think at that point. I knew what Unction was, the holy oil used for anointing the sick, but wasn’t sure what it might do. I was feeling really numb until went I went with her for the second surgery.

My mom needed a second surgery because the cancer came back. It would be the same surgery as the first time, and she needed a second craniotomy slightly to the left of the first.

Afterwards I began to read more about the teachings of the church. It was not an intensive study, as I was going to be finishing high school soon, but I had this desire to learn more about God and our Faith.

I think my experience around my mom’s surgery pushed me closer to the church and to learning more about what it means to be an Orthodox Christian in America.

I began to be more aware of what I needed to do to become more disciplined, both in my studies and in the spiritual life. I learned from going to the divine services and from Orthodox web sites and getting closer to my dad, when we would talk about these things.

My mom’s brain cancer also made me appreciate the funeral services and better understand the services during Holy Week and Pascha (Easter) recounting the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Thankfully, my mom didn’t die from the cancer, but this understanding of how the church supports its members and provides services of healing, to remind us that the threat of death is not as far away as I thought it was. Yet, in that, we have the hope and promise of the Resurrection – so death does not overcome us or destroy our hope in God.

I think I came to that appreciation from participating in the services throughout the year after my mom’s cancer returned. It certainly was more poignant than before the cancer. And it made me much more grateful for what and who I have in my life, keeping me from becoming impatient at minor things, like when I can’t find a matching pair of socks after doing a load of laundry.

I found myself being much more invested in the life of the church afterwards. The experience of potentially losing my mom so quickly and in such an awful way, showed me that the right way to faith in God through prayer was right in front of me.