'My facial numbness turned out to be a brain tumor'

Shawna Young was pregnant when doctors diagnosed her with a golf ball-sized mass.

I searched the internet for Bell's Palsy, and found out it was when the muscles in your face start to sag. I thought, Oh my god, I'm going to wake up any day now and the left side of my face is going to fall and start drooping.But it never did.

At the time, in 2005, I was in my junior year of college, studying elementary education at the University of Indianapolis. I had just moved into my first off-campus apartment. I had a 3-year-old daughter, and was expecting my second child with my then fiancé (now husband). I was doing a little bit of student teaching and preparing for a new baby. And up until that doctor's visit, it had been a relatively stress-free time in my life.



Around two and a half months later, I passed out and was rushed to the emergency room. They did a CAT scan to see if there was fluid on my spine, and when there wasn't, they suggested I follow up with a neurologist and have an MRI done just to be on the safe side.

I wasn't sure what it could be—I had been told my previous symptoms were due to Bell's Palsy, which is only supposed to affect the face, so passing out didn't really fit. So I followed up with the neurologist and had that precautionary MRI. A few days later, she called asking me if I could come into her office to discuss the results.

I told her that I had class and tried to get her to tell me over the phone, but she insisted. At that point, I didn't think it could be anything that serious.

At our appointment, she told me I had a meningioma—a tumor that emerges from the membranes around the brain and spinal cord—on the left side of my brain. It was the size of a golf ball.

She said that these types of tumors are generally non-cancerous, but she wouldn't know for sure until they opened my brain up and removed it. A million conflicting, overwhelming emotions hit me at once. I was scared for my baby, for myself, for my family. But I knew I had to be strong for them. I also felt intense anger, frustration, and disappointment in the fact that I had been incorrectly diagnosed. I could have, no, should have, been receiving treatment for this golf-ball-sized tumor two and a half months ago. What now?



Due to the size of the tumor, surgery was the only option.

The plan was to have my baby first, and schedule the surgery after I was recovered. When you're pregnant, you have to be especially careful to avoid complications. At this point, I had about a month left to go in my pregnancy. Before the tumor, I was going to do a vaginal birth—but the ob-gyn recommended a Cesarean section so that there was no chance of dislodging the tumor in some way while pushing in the delivery room. Aside from having a C-section, there was nothing else recommended to me to keep the tumor in check at the time.

I had my daughter on July 5, 2005, and had my surgery the Monday after Thanksgiving of that same year.

The surgery took 12 hours. I don't remember who was there, but I know my neurosurgeon had a team working with him. They only had to shave a small portion of my head—about the size of my palm, right above my left ear.


In surgery, the doctor was able to remove 90 percent of the tumor—10 percent of it was too close to my brain to remove safely without risking brain damage. The tumor did end up being benign, and I didn't have to go through any chemo or radiation afterward.

However, it was still important to remove as much of the tumor as possible since it was lying on a nerve in my brain that affected my balance, and it could have impeded way more brain function as it grew.


After I came out of surgery, I couldn't remember my daughters' names. I kept calling them "the big one" and "the little one."

For months, the brain fog continued. People would say something like, "Well, this is approximately 50 yards from here," and I knew the word "approximately" was somewhere in my memory, but I couldn't remember what it meant, so I'd have to ask. It was like somebody opened up all the file cabinet drawers in my brain, took out all the files, and threw them around the room. I had to search to find any given file.


It was an extremely difficult time, but I had a very strong support system. I'm an only child, so my mom stepped in to help, and my husband helped to take care of the kids when I couldn't and kept things running smoothly while I recovered.

I'll be honest, I don't remember parenting a lot during this time. There are a lot of things that I don't remember during those first few months. I don't remember having my kids around me a lot, but I know they were taken care of by people who love them. After about two months, I was able to take care of the kids on my own. But I still needed a lot of support.

My neuropsychologist put me through a series of tests to examine my memory, spacial awareness, and IQ. All of that's standard after a brain surgery. They deemed my IQ relatively high, said my side effects were normal, and told me I'd recover. It wasn't that I lost any knowledge or that my personality changed, it was just more difficult for me to recover knowledge and remember things. They didn't recommend any physical or occupational therapy at that time, so I just kind of had to go through it. (It took me about a year for my brain function to get back to normal.)

Going through it, though, was tough. I had always been a very astute student. School had always been "my thing." The thought of going back was scary to think about, but I was determined to finish my schooling. I went back to college in January of 2005 for my final year of undergrad, two months after the surgery. I had a lot of professors who understood what was going on and shed some grace on me. I would sit through lectures and write down the words I didn't know, then have one of my friends or classmates explain what each word meant.



In 2008, with my brain up and running at full speed again, I went back to school to earn a graduate degree in marriage and family therapy. I graduated in December of 2010 and started practicing in January of 2011. I had my third daughter in 2013.

Then, the tumor grow back.

During my first diagnosis, the doctor had mentioned pregnancy hormones can cause a slow-growing tumor to grow faster. I can't tell you why that is, but I can tell you that it's extremely frustrating to have someone explain this to you in a "matter of fact" way. I knew there was a risk of it growing back with my third child, and some may say having a third child was irresponsible, given my brain-tumor history. But I was determined to have her. And I did.

So, in 2016, when I started experiencing headaches and more balance issues than normal, I went to my neurologist, and a scan confirmed that my brain tumor was again growing.

This time, it was the size of an eyeball—not as big as before, but still bigger than anyone would like. Because it wasn't as large, radiation treatment was an option, and I decided to take it. I underwent a total of 28 radiation treatments over the course of six weeks. The tumor didn't shrink, but the radiation did kill the cells so that it wouldn't grow anymore.


As of now, I'm in remission. But, to make sure things stay that way, I have to get annual MRIs of my brain. Apart from those MRIs—and some lingering balance and headache issues—life for me really isn't any different than I imagine it would be if I never had a brain tumor. I have an amazing career, supportive husband, and three girls who are beautiful inside and out. I'm incredibly lucky. And, thanks to my brain tumor, I truly understand just how lucky I am.


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