What It’s Like To: Find Out You Have a Brain Tumor

Photo credit: Mariah Tauger


elli Collins, a fitness instructor from Newport Beach, shifted her priorities after a terrifying diagnosis. This is her story:

I divide my life into pre-brain tumor and post-brain tumor.

In my pre-brain tumor life, I never went to the beach or walked on the pier—even though I lived right next to it. I was a workaholic. I was a pro ballet dancer at 14 and flew around the world while I was an all-star high school basketball player. (As an adult), I’d do a 12-hour makeup job at HBO studios in L.A., stop to help at a flower shop in Belmont Shore, then do the night shift as a server at Mutt Lynch’s bar in Newport Beach. Three years ago, I became an instructor at GritCycle in Costa Mesa. I taught mornings and nights and kept the books at another company.

Then in December 2017, my life changed. In Portland for the weekend, I suddenly felt slow and began forgetting things. I couldn’t remember what I ordered, what direction I just came from. I brushed my teeth with my right hand—and I’m left-handed. My brain was scrambled. I got lost at the airport and almost missed my flight.

I Ubered home, then got ready for my spin class. With one look, my friend Melissa, who I’d asked for a lift, said, “You are not teaching tonight. I’m taking you to the hospital.”

Checking in, I couldn’t say my name or give my address. I had lost control of an arm, spoke in a word salad. They put me in the ICU, thinking it was a stroke. But after a CT scan, the guys in white jackets came in—a heart doctor and a neurologist. “You need to call your family,” they said. “You have a tumor in your head the size of a golf ball.”

My brain surgery required nine days of prep. The tumor was benign but in a sensitive area for personality and memory. Chance of death was 60 percent, they said, with risk of paralysis. By the time they put in a porthole to suck it out, my tumor went from golf ball to tennis ball. But they got it all.

My recovery was way faster than normal—actually, kind of freaky. I was out of commission for just three months. I was even driving, although it was like sensory overload. My fitness and positive attitude definitely helped. I did yoga after a month in bed, then kept moving. In March, 300 people showed up for my “Welcome back” ride at GritCycle. A week later, I taught a class.

But mental healing is slower. Nearly a year later, I can’t read or add as fast. I used to have beautiful handwriting and don’t anymore. To work out my brain, I do crossword puzzles and number games.

My hardest assignment is sleeping 11 hours a day. That’s the only way your brain heals. Before, I never even slept eight hours. I’d get five max.

The tumor is the best and worst thing that’s ever happened to me. I took it as a sign I need to slow down. It gave me a new outlook: Live my life, not work my life.

I’d lived at the beach for 12 years but rarely touched sand or saw a sunset. Now I ride a bike, ignore my cellphone, and walk my dog to the pier and do meditation. Before, I’d feel guilty about these things.

Time is of the essence now. Who knows when a brain tumor or something else will come up in your life? I will live this second life as well as I possibly can.

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