It started with headaches.
Valerie Swidock knew something was wrong. "I'm not a headache person," she said.
Those headaches marked the beginning of a seven-month journey that would culminate last October with the successful surgical removal of a benign brain tumor. Swidock is one of the more than 190,000 people in the United States who are diagnosed with a brain tumor each year.
Along the way, Swidock, 51, would experience "overwhelming" support from her family, her church and her friends. She would gain a deeper understanding about tumors and treatment options, and she would find a doctor she could put her trust in, St. Petersburg neurosurgeon Dr. David McKalip.
"I put everything into Dr. McKalip's hands and God's hands," she said.
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The headaches started in March 2008. Swidock said the pain would start around her right temple and eventually take over the top of her head.
As the headaches persisted, she contacted her gastroenterologist, worried the ibuprofen she took for her head was hurting her stomach. The gastroenterologist ordered a CAT scan, which revealed an abnormality in her brain.
"Your heart kind of just sinks," she said of her reaction to the news. "It's just the fear of the unknown."
Swidock then saw McKalip, who ordered an MRI that confirmed she had a benign meningioma on the surface of her left occipital lobe. Tumors in this location can result in a loss of vision in the right eye, weakness to the right side of the body or a stroke, McKalip said.
After first considering a gamma knife radiation treatment, she chose to have McKalip perform surgery, an image-guided craniotomy, to remove the tumor.
The surgery was scheduled for Oct. 21.
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Next came what Swidock describes as the hardest thing she's ever had to do. "My biggest concern was how are we going to tell our 12-year-old," she said of daughter Emily, a seventh-grader at Sacred Heart Interparochial School in Pinellas Park.
Until then, only Swidock, a stay-at-home mom, and her husband, Stan, who works for the Postal Service, knew of her planned surgery. After consulting with their pastor and Emily's pediatrician, they decided to wait until the surgery was three weeks away, and then to just say she was having a growth in her head removed.
Emily's matter-of-fact response: "Is it malignant?''
Emily then took her astonished mom outside. "She put her arm around me and said, 'Listen, Mom, everything's going to be okay. I'm going to tell God that I still need you.’"
• • •
Three days after the surgery, Swidock was discharged from Bayfront Medical Center.
After a textbook-smooth recovery, her hair has grown back, now covering the three-sided incision, a little bigger than a deck of cards, on the back of her head. She's back to her usual routine, which includes volunteering at Emily's school every Wednesday.
Her headaches have gone away. But as it turns out, although headaches are a symptom of brain tumors, McKalip said the tumor isn't what caused her pain. Swidock now thinks they were sinus headaches, brought on by the oak trees starting to bloom in the spring.
Still, when asked what she thought people should take away from her experience, it's that "if you have headaches that aren't normal, definitely see your doctor," she said.
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Besides headaches, McKalip says people should pay attention to other early warning signs of brain tumors.
• Is there weakness on one side of the body?
• Are there visual changes or speech changes?
• Are you sleepier than normal?
• Are you waking up in the morning with a headache that goes away?
"It's important to seek medical care when you have these sorts of symptoms," said McKalip, president of the Florida Neurosurgical Society and president-elect of the Pinellas County Medical Association. "Don't just let it go."
Richard Martin can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8330.