What It’s Like To: Finish College Despite a Brain Tumor

Newport Beach native and food blogger Justine Okajima’s diagnosis led her to prioritize her health and rediscover her passions.
Photograph by Emily J. Davis

I was a junior (at Cal State Long Beach) when they found the brain tumor.

At 20 years old, my life in October 2018 was overly consumed with school, work, an internship, dance training, and a food blog. The first symptoms I felt were fatigue, headaches, visual abnormalities, and an undeniable feeling that something was off. I equated this to stress from being overworked, until my friends and family noticed and convinced me something was wrong.

I was hesitant to see a doctor, but my mom had the final say. A month after the first onset of symptoms, I underwent multiple specialist appointments, blood tests, and MRIs. Abnormal results confirmed that something wasn’t functioning correctly in my body. I had a growth in my pituitary gland; a benign tumor blocking receptors that send hormones from my brain to the rest of my body. This diagnosis explained my extreme depression, weight gain, mood imbalances, and visual field constriction.

The months that ensued were the toughest I’ve ever been through. It was a constant battle between my body and mind, and the stress of it all only amplified my symptoms. The growth in my brain caused me to lose all normality. I was frustrated, anxious, and sick, and craved the happiness and excitement that my everyday passions used to bring me.

After seeing a neurosurgeon and endocrinologist to discuss my recovery options, I opted out of surgery and hormone therapy, instead deciding to enact major lifestyle changes in order to decrease the effects of the tumor. Because stress was the main cause, my doctor believed time and prioritizing mental and physical health would help shrink the tumor.

I quit my job, dropped two classes, and took a step back from my food blog. The following semesters consisted of stress management, changing my entire diet, getting consistent and quality sleep, and undergoing routine blood work and checkups.

In April 2020, lab results reflected my lifestyle changes: The tumor had shrunk, my bloodwork returned to normal, and I was back on my way to a normal life.

I refound my love for dance. I had been pursuing a B.A. in dance, and after over a year of not even finding the energy to audition for new opportunities, I applied for and became a B.F.A. dance major, a degree with a higher course load and an emphasis on performance and choreography.

My energy levels are better than ever. I’m motivated, driven, and know how to listen to my body in order to prioritize my mental and physical health. I post on my food blog (@justine.eats on Instagram) almost every day and have landed paid partnerships and collaborations with (major brands). I gained the courage to share my medical diagnosis and journey, which allowed me to meet a few followers in similar situations, whom I have built and maintained relationships with.

Despite expecting to stay in school an extra semester due to dropped classes, I took a summer session and graduated this past May with the B.F.A. in dance and a minor in hospitality management.

I need annual MRIs, bimonthly blood tests, and regular doctor visits to ensure my recovery process continues in the right direction. It might seem like a lot, but this is small in comparison to my reality two years ago.

I fell in love with life again. I don’t think about the growth anymore. The adjustments I was forced to make are overall better changes for my health and happiness, and things I would have never done without the diagnosis. I’m ready to just keep getting stronger.

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