Three little words

By Nancy Black

Benign brain tumor. 

Say what?

“You have a benign brain tumor,” my Ear, Nose and Throat (ENT) doctor repeated to me. “It’s called an acoustic neuroma,” she added.

Flash back to 2017 when I first noticed hearing loss in my right ear. My primary care doctor suggested a hearing test, which I got done. 

It showed definite hearing loss on one side, so I was instructed to go to an ENT to “make sure you don’t have some kind of tumor in your ear before we give you hearing aids.”

Enter the hell of dealing with insurance companies and specialty doctor visits. My insurer did not have one ENT in all of North Texas! The closest one was in Louisiana. Seriously. So, after two years of trying to find one in state, I had to pay a lot of money out of pocket — with the promise of being reimbursed by my provider — to visit an out-of-network ENT in Dallas. He suggested a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) on my head. That, the insurance company did pay for.

No news is good news, right? My MRI was in September of 2019 and I never heard (pun intended?) anything back from any doctor or clinic. So at least I didn’t have that tumor they mentioned. I went about my life, 2020 arrived with all its glory, and the last thing I was worried about was not hearing very well in my right ear. In fact, I realized I could sleep through anything (alarms, dogs barking, thunderstorms) if I laid down with my good ear on the pillow, so I got a lot of good, deep sleep during the lockdown.

Then one of my dearest friends died unexpectedly from colon cancer. I spoke with her at the end of March 2020 prior to her diagnosis, and she was gone by August. That prompted me to make an appointment for my yearly physical. I was hesitant to go because of COVID-19, but I didn’t want to delay any health care, for fear of missing a potentially life-threatening disorder, which are often found on a yearly screening.

My doctor asked how my hearing was. I told him I still couldn’t hear out of my right ear. He issued a request for another “specialty doctor visit” with an ENT. To my amazement, my insurance company (same one) actually had an ENT in network this time. I went to her, had another hearing test, and then she wanted to see my MRI from 2019. 

I signed one of those forms giving her permission to access the files and went about my merry way.

That’s when I got the call. “Didn’t anyone ever tell you that you have a benign brain tumor?” the ENT asked. I assured her they had not. It turns out, my primary care doctor’s office never received the original MRI report back. What I had assumed was “no news, good news” was actually not the case. A huge goof up on my doctor’s office part.  And mine for not checking.

According to the Mayo Clinic: “Acoustic neuroma, also known as vestibular schwannoma, is a noncancerous and usually slow-growing tumor that develops on the main (vestibular) nerve leading from your inner ear to your brain. 

“Branches of this nerve directly influence your balance and hearing, and pressure from an acoustic neuroma can cause hearing loss, ringing in your ear and unsteadiness. Treatments for acoustic neuroma include regular monitoring, radiation and surgical removal.”

Regardless of all the months/years of inaction and confusion, my tumor (about the size of a large cashew nut; considered “moderate” in the medical world) was out of the bag now, and a course of action needed to be planned. Another MRI, an extremely discombobulating hearing test and a few surgeon appointments later, the good news is — we are in a wait and watch mode. The surgeons will revisit my acoustic neuroma in one year after another MRI.

It’s very jarring going from wondering one second if you will have open cranial brain surgery to being told the next second to “come back in a year.” But I’m OK with that prognosis. And I’ll sleep even better, on my good ear, knowing that, though the tumor is growing, it won’t kill me.

The pandemic has given many people an excuse to delay typical medical screenings and visits to doctors. No more! Schedule those appointments today! And follow up with your doctors if you don’t receive copies of any medical screenings. Your good health begins with you taking action. Do you hear me?