Mom Talk: Surviving a Brain Tumor

Written by

Deb Heyrana

9:00 am
07/19/19

As a frequent attendee at our events, we’ve always known Oakland mama of two Deb Heyrana as a big hugger, big laugher, and jolliest joke-maker around. What we didn’t know is what her joyful, always grateful demeanor hid behind it—until now. In today’s “Mom Talk,” the artist and graphic designer shares a beautifully written story of how the agony of discovering she had a brain tumor lead to eventual ecstasy.

It took something that almost broke me for me to find my voice. I was at work one day, and I immediately knew something was wrong. I was a graphic designer, so I was constantly looking at color, balance, and layout. That day, my vision seemed darker than usual on the left. I also taught a weekly dance class, and my balance suddenly felt off. I made an appointment with my eye doctor right away. She could see my concern, and although she couldn’t spot anything out of the ordinary, she sent me to a specialist just to make sure. The specialist said the same thing—nothing out of the ordinary. He suggested that maybe I was feeling tired because I had a small child at home. I almost accepted that answer, but I knew myself better than that.

To be frank, it bothered me that a diagnosis of “tired new mom” seemed to be enough for him. Before I had by daughter Quinn I probably would have let this go, but knowing I had this little person to take care of, advocating for my health wasn’t just advocating for myself. I took some time to observe my eyesight. Soon, there were other symptoms. My teeth started feeling sensitive on the left side. I was overdue for a check-up anyway, so I brought it up during my appointment. I was sent to another doctor, who sent me to another doctor who finally ordered an MRI. I was chatting with the MRI technician during the scan, when, glancing at the images, his demeanor completely changed. He didn’t have to say anything, his eyes said it all. I whispered to Jay, my husband, “I think something is wrong.”

Jay tried to stay positive. “We’ll wait to see what the doctor says,” he told me. I’ve always considered myself strong. It’s a point of pride, that I feel like I can physically take on anything. I immigrated here when I was 9-years-old and took care of my sisters while my parents worked night shifts. I had to grow up fast. Then, after having Quinn, I especially felt like a badass. My pregnancy wasn’t easy and labor felt like a lifetime achievement. After getting through childbirth, I wanted to high-five all mothers. But this big unknown? I wasn’t prepared for this type of emotional turmoil.

By the end of the day, I got the call: “There’s a golf ball size tumor located between your left nasal cavity and cranial nerves.” My heart felt heavy, I didn’t know how to process it. All I knew was I needed to get a biopsy and then we would go from there. But then what? They even suggested that the tumor’s rapid growth may have been a result of my pregnancy. However it got there, it needed to be taken out or there could be more complications down the road. So, I was back to waiting—the part that I wasn’t great at, and not at all prepared for. Waiting in that room (so many rooms), getting tested, and then waiting to hear back. It was a terrible cycle. I had to advocate for myself and call to remind them, “Hi, remember me? I’m still here…waiting.”

I was told to stop breastfeeding Quinn because of all the pain medication I would have to take. That truly was one of the saddest days for me. I wanted it to be natural, on our own time, but instead it was forced. It had taken me 6 weeks for her to latch after she was born. That was its own intense journey. I sobbed alone as Quinn called for me while my husband had to console her to sleep. I felt lonely. Then my mind started going to dark place—I would cycle through possibilities that didn’t even exist. Stories and situations completely fabricated by my desperation to find answers. I felt broken.

It took three biopsies to find out it was benign. I still had a series of surgeries ahead of me. I know I should have been more thankful that it wasn’t cancer, but what followed took over my life for about a year and a half. The doctors were able to access everything through the roof of my mouth instead of slicing into my skull, which was amazing, but also made for a different type of intense and invasive procedure. In order to remove the tumor, they took out almost all of my top left teeth along with 3/4 off the roof of my mouth. Mentally accepting that process was hard, and physically it was no easier. It took three surgeries to completely remove the tumor, and another three to reconstruct the inside of my mouth. In between each procedure was a whole lot of waiting. 

Waiting. That word made me frustrated and angry. It had become a source of stress for me. I had to wear this “appliance” that was attached to my teeth. It helped hold everything up, while I waited for the bone graft and tissue to rebuild in order to be able to move on to the next step. After each surgery I was put on a liquid diet, and I stayed in bed for weeks at a time. I bled out of my mouth so much so that Quinn, who was 2.5 years old at the time, knew to bring a trash can and a roll of paper towels to my bedside.

Besides not being able to eat regular food, I talked very little because it was so painful. But the thing I missed most was smiling. I smiled weakly and with my mouth closed for that year and a half. It was awkward for me, because my former smile was a full-face smile. Everything would contract with joy—my eyes, my cheeks, my lips—and my teeth would always be showing. I was also on powerful pain killers and felt so out of it. I would forget people’s names—people I knew really well. I didn’t want to interact with the world. I didn’t feel like myself, and I wanted to hide. Some friends didn’t understand why I didn’t want them over, and some I lost because they couldn’t accept how I wanted to heal. I have friends who would text me just to say they were thinking about me with no response needed, I appreciated those the most. Those are the friends still in my life. They were there for me when I was winning and even when I was at my worst. 

Through it all my husband was understanding and patient. I can’t even imagine what he must’ve been going through seeing me like that. But I know him, and I believe he was trying his hardest to be the rock I needed. One day he came home with a bag of art supplies. He simply said “Just paint, I know it makes you happy.” He knew that as hard as my childhood was, art was my escape. We started dating while I was at The Corcoran College of Art and Design and I was in pure creative bliss. I had forgotten the simple motion of picking up the brush, dipping it in water, slowly lifting the paint and guiding it on paper. I was reminded why I love watercolors so much: You have to be patient and wait to see how the water will move the colors and then how they will set. To me it was like watching a dance. It filled me with calm and my mind felt quieter. Here I was in bed recovering —and I was starting to see that as a pleasant thing, rather than torture. I could sit here surrounded by my family and paint while my body healed. 

I studied painting and sculpture in college, but ended up pursuing graphic design as a career. My first love was always abstract art but then with all my new painting time, I began making illustrations and portraits for my family and friends. They always reacted with such joy, and that felt wonderful to me. I started sharing my art on Instagram. I felt it was a good way for me to document my progress as an Illustrator. It was really just for me, and what followed wasn’t anything close to what I expected. I started getting messages from strangers and people I knew asking if I could illustrate their children, as well. For anyone to not only appreciate my art, but want to hang it in their home still floors me, to this day. Unbeknown to them, I was doing it all while I was in bed recovering from yet another surgery.

I started taking commission orders, and everyone was always so grateful, but they had no idea how healing it all was for me. We also made an art table for Quinn, and as I painted, she would, too. Jay would go out and get as many art supplies as we needed. Every time I would let the watercolors dry between layers we’d take dance breaks. I was grateful for those times because, well, dance breaks rock. All these little moments are precious.

Painting helped me to cope with those previously unbearable in-betweens, or in any in-betweens. It was during the quiet moments when I had to wait for the paint to dry that I learned a lot about myself. How I had more grit and patience than I realized. Even when I was sitting quietly rocking my babe to sleep, I could close my eyes and smell her hair—I was all the way in the moment, and it was perfect. I wasn’t just trying to get by from point A to B. My state of mind started embracing all the moments, as they were happening. No matter how mundane the process seemed, I looked forward to it.

A few things has changed since then. My smile is bigger and my laugh even louder. I know that experience allowed me to rediscover how I express myself. From how I love to how I paint. When I was waiting in between every biopsy and surgery, I couldn’t picture a year from that day. I felt like I wasn’t allowed to. I didn’t want to be disappointed or let anyone down. I remember thinking, “if I get through this I’d love to try having another baby.” I had more of my heart to give. I am now a mother of two girls, Quinn, 6, and Rowan, 2. I get to experience life through their eyes and it takes my breath away every time I think back to when this seemed impossible. 

I can still feel the large scar in my mouth every day, it has become my armor. I go through procedures here and there to check how my implants are doing and most recently learned that they have to put in more bone graft. It doesn’t frustrate me like in the beginning, I’m just gracious I get to live it.

After I had Rowan, I thought I would take a 6-month break to have some time with my newborn. She was born in November of 2016, and the following January the Muslim Ban was announced. It broke my heart. I called my friend, who is Muslim, and asked how she was doing. She told me her girls were scared and sad. I painted a piece for them to know that they are loved and that there is still lots of good in this world. I painted two girls embracing a girl with a hijab. My friend shared it on social media and immediately I began getting requests to make it into a print. So, I did, and donated 100% of the proceeds to ACLU. I was overwhelmed by the response. I think fondly of that piece because I haven’t stopped since. The only way I could express my sadness for that ban was through love, and it brings me so much happiness that others appreciated it as well. Art not only was part of my healing, it became my voice to the change I wanted to see. 

I’m still painting in the little corner of our home. In the midst of family life, I try and find balance. Thankful for every chance I get to express myself in any way. I sometimes put Rowan in a baby carrier and she become part of the process, snuggled into me as I express myself on this large canvas. I get to kiss her head in between big paint strokes. I still have so much to learn. I’ve embraced failure because the fear of not trying weighs heavier on me. When things do feel heavy, I take moments and I wait. I try and be still and think about why I’m here and what I’m thankful for: Jay’s love and humor for over 18 years, friends and family who have held my hand no matter what, and then there’s my girls. These girls have shaped me in every way. They have allowed me to embrace me, the whole me, with all my flaws and triumphs, and appreciate each journey, no matter how good or bad. Today I express myself with no bounds, because I know it leads to discovery and healing. Every gesture has purpose, down to how I fill my heart. As broken as I felt before, I am more whole, with room for growth and more love than ever before.

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