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Sharp Health News

Brain tumor survivor looks back on her journey to health

Oct. 12, 2021

Melissa Menas and Chris Morrow

Melissa Menas poses with her partner, Chris Morrow. As she went through surgery for a brain tumor, caregivers at Sharp Memorial Hospital offered support to her entire family.

Leave it to a little brother to be more curious about what it might feel like to sneeze after brain surgery — “Ooh, I bet that’s going to hurt!”— than the surgery itself. But Melissa Menas can only laugh about it, simply thrilled to share the success of the surgery with him and the others in her life.

Melissa just wishes that she knew years ago, when her brain tumor was first diagnosed, how smoothly its removal and her recovery would go — and how willing she’d be to take a little brotherly ribbing after surgery. “Oh my gosh, if I had known how great I would be feeling, I would not have dragged my feet as much as I did,” she says.

And for the record, Melissa’s first post-surgery sneeze went off without a hitch. And her brother really did care about how she was faring beyond that potentially painful moment.

Not just an upset stomach
It was approximately four years ago when Melissa first felt some discomfort after an especially flavorful meal. “I love spicy food, but sometimes it doesn’t love me back,” she admits.

She had gotten up in the middle of the night, not feeling well, to make her way to the bathroom, only to wake a bit later on the floor of her hallway. She had passed out.

With both of her grown children, Amanda and Dmitri, away at college, she reached out to close neighbors, who got her to the ER. Expecting treatment for a stomach issue, she was instead sent for an MRI and was in disbelief when she was told she had a meningioma, the most common type of noncancerous brain tumor.

While most meningiomas grow slowly and are not accompanied by any significant signs or symptoms, problems with coordination, headaches, and weakness in the arms and legs can be common. It was likely the tumor that led to Melissa’s fall rather than her dinner.

“The neurosurgeon told me the tumor didn’t need to be removed right away,” she says. “We could monitor it over time but because of where it was located, it might affect my olfactory glands. He said I should see him again if I began to have trouble smelling things.”

Wishing she hadn’t waited
Relieved to have dodged surgery — for the time being, at least — Melissa kept herself busy with work and getting her kids through the next few years of college. And then the COVID-19 pandemic struck in March 2020.

Laid off from her position in hospitality sales, she decided to use her newfound time to focus on her health. As a year or so slowly passed and the pandemic showed no signs of ending, Melissa and her primary care provider agreed it was finally time to get an MRI to see if the brain tumor had progressed.

The scan results shocked her doctor, who immediately called to ask if Melissa had been experiencing any dizziness or falls. She hadn’t — in fact, Melissa was as active as ever and her sense of smell hadn’t changed.

But the meningioma had grown to the size of an egg and Melissa was referred to Dr. Richard Ostrup, a neurosurgeon affiliated with Sharp Community Medical Group. Following his advice to have the surgery to remove the tumor before it grew any further, Melissa scheduled it for early fall so that she could celebrate her mother’s 90th birthday in June and enjoy the rest of the summer.

However, another patient’s postponed surgery meant her surgery could be moved up to July. Though she hesitantly accepted the opportunity for an earlier surgery than planned, she now can’t believe she allowed herself to wait even that long.

“If I knew then what I know now, I never would have been so fearful of the surgery,” Melissa says. “Modern medicine is so spectacular. It’s unbelievable what they can do!”

Melissa also thinks Dr. Ostrup and the care she received at Sharp is equally impressive. Her surgery at Sharp Memorial Hospital, though longer than originally planned, was successful, and Melissa was up and walking within 24 hours and sent home just three days later.

“The first time we sat down with Dr. Ostrup, we were with him for at least an hour,” she says. “He was willing to answer every question we had, and we never felt rushed. The care we received was like no other, and it was like that from top to bottom within the Sharp system the whole time. Every person is so attentive — it just struck me that Sharp really is different.”

A noticeable difference
Melissa points out that the exceptional attention given at Sharp Memorial wasn’t exclusive to her. Her partner, Chris Morrow, and children were at the hospital throughout her surgery and recovery, often waiting in the Family Resource Center, which was created in an external location during the pandemic as a space for loved ones to safely gather and stay connected to the patient and their caregivers. They, too, noticed the difference.

“Chris, Amanda and Dmitri were all so appreciative of the care that was shown to them,” she says. “The chaplain checked in with them during the surgery to help them manage their stress. Even the security staff would check in and ask, ‘How is Mom doing today? How are you doing?’ each time they came to the hospital. We were all so impressed.”

Melissa also appreciated the opportunity to receive reiki during her hospital stay. Reiki, an energy healing technique that promotes stress relief and relaxation, is just one of the many integrative therapies offered to patients during recovery. Because Melissa’s loved ones’ visits were limited due to the pandemic, the practitioner’s compassionate and healing touch made an impact.

“Because of COVID, you couldn’t always have your family there, holding your hand,” Melissa says. “To have someone resting their hands on me and exchanging that energy, that was something that was very palpable to me.”

The power of connection
That renewed awareness of the importance of touch stuck with Melissa as she returned home to recover. She recognized that connection with others was the greatest healer, especially during an incredibly challenging time that ushered in a pandemic, political strife, polarization among people and, for her, brain surgery.

“I felt like I needed to get out there with the message that we’ve got to come together and find connection again, be joyful and celebrate our successes,” she says. “And there is nothing short of success in what I just went through.”

Now back to going on miles-long walks, golfing and traveling, Melissa has also reached out to old friends, colleagues and clients and shared her journey and message with them.

“Human connection is so important to me — there’s nothing like it,” she says. “So I guess you could say this isn’t really about me or my surgery, but about the people who got me through — my family, friends, Dr. Ostrup, the Sharp staff — you know, my village.”

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