Commentary: Life lessons from my ‘tumors’

On Sept. 27, 2018, neurosurgeons cut open the back of my head to remove a tumor from my brain. Even though a seven-centimeter tumor (the size of a racket ball) was removed, I gained something more.

Joseph Mauler is feeling better since the removal of his tumor, equipped with a new outlook on life. (Photo courtesy of Joseph Mauler)

Psychiatrist, neurologist and holocaust survivor Viktor E. Frankl said in “Man’s Search for Meaning” that “when we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.” I was not able to change the fact that a tumor needed to be removed from my head, but I was challenged to change how I live my life.

For years I experienced symptoms of nausea and, beginning in 2018, constant headaches. I had misdiagnosis after misdiagnosis, but after dozens of medications, I felt no relief.

In the 2018 fall semester, I left my role as the training coordinator at Chick-fil-A because there were some shifts I would spend completely nauseated. I became too sick to work.

Finally, my primary care doctor suggested I get a CT scan of my brain to eliminate ‘that possibility.’ However, ‘that possibility’ was only confirmed when the scan showed a benign tumor in my cerebellum that they believe had been growing since my childhood.

The last MRI of my brain in February 2020 showed no signs of the tumor growing back. Since my surgery, I have experienced no headaches and have barely been nauseous.

From this experience, I learned many things about myself and life. After facing this situation, I learned that our lives are determined by attitude, not performance, by mental health, not necessarily physical health, by finding our passions, not success, and by living for others, not ourselves.

LIFE IS DETERMINED BY ATTITUDE

After a brain tumor, I finally understood that my life is not defined by my accomplishments. The night before my surgery, my GPA was the least of my worries.

The author gives a thumbs up after a successful surgery on his brain tumor. (Photo courtesy of Joseph Mauler)

I found that what matters is my ‘why,’ not my ‘what.’ I can get straight A’s, become extremely successful and find financial security. But what is that worth when I am not living for the things that matter?

We can only live a life well by having the right attitude and the right ‘why.’ Attitude comes from what we tell ourselves and determines how we treat ourselves and others.

A positive attitude is the result of positive thoughts. The attitude I seek is to look for the good in everyone, even myself.

I have always struggled with my inner critic and thoughts, which makes my ‘why’ foggy and hard to find. When I practice self kindness, I am more enabled to be kind to others, and know ‘why’ I am living, even in the face of pain.

LIFE IS DETERMINED BY MENTAL HEALTH      

If I’m being honest, this tumor was not the worst enemy I have faced. Depression was doing a better job at killing every part of me and the doctors could not remove that.

I have struggled with depression since high school, where I fight against the hopelessness in my mind and sometimes the thought that I don’t want to be here. I had that thought the night before my surgery and many nights after.

I realized everyone has his or her own ‘tumor,’ an enemy they fight every day. Sometimes that enemy is themselves, sometimes a person, or finding out life is shorter than they thought it was going to be.

I’m not the only one who is still fighting a ‘tumor.’ A neurosurgeon might not be able to remove depression, but knowing I am not alone heals it.

After going back to my normal life following my surgery, I told someone about my depression and the thoughts I was having about wishing I didn’t wake up. My choice was to be honest and transparent with someone about how I was feeling and it was only then that I started to experience healing from my mental illness.

If you fight a mental illness, reach out and talk to someone. Doctors might not be able to remove your mental ‘tumor,’ but reminding yourself that you are not alone is sometimes the only medicine you can take.

LIFE IS DETERMINED BY FINDING YOUR PASSION

After returning to class the week after my surgery, I decided once again to face that very important question: “What do I want to do with my life?” This is a question everyone must face, especially those headed for graduation. I knew the answer to this question, but I was too afraid to pursue it.

I asked myself what I enjoyed most in life, whether at work, school, or even snowboarding. My answer was and is connecting with the people around me.

Everywhere I go, I seek quality, one-on-one conversations with people. I love when I get to listen to people share their stories, feelings and, simply, themselves.

The author is smiling post-surgery, having discovered his passion. (Photo courtesy of Joseph Mauler)

Already in my junior year as a business communication major, I decided to pursue that passion to connect to people through a career as a therapist. Only a couple days after I was back to school, I approached the psychology department to find out what it took to become a licensed professional counselor and pursue my passion.

During the rest of my junior and senior year at Stevenson, I obtained a minor in psychology. After I graduate in May 2020, I will pursue a master’s in clinical mental health counseling at Messiah College.

Instead of seeking success, I decided to seek my passion, to seek what I love in life. So far, instead of finding what many people consider success, I have found fulfillment in simply the pursuit.

LIFE IS DETERMINED BY LOVING WELL

Lying on that table at the University of Maryland on Sept. 27, 2018 was the closest I have been to death. Brain surgery is a life-threatening risk and I didn’t know if I was going to wake up. Before they put me under, there was only one way I could measure my life: how well I loved and impacted others.

Maya Angelou, an American poet, singer and civil rights activist, said, “People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” This is determined by how well we love.

Now, after everything, the most important things to me when I sit down for my classes are the people sitting next to me. The most important things to me when I finish a long day are the people I come home to. The most important thing to me when I lie down to breathe my last breath will be how well I loved.

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