Brain Cancer Interrupted My Life at the Peak of My Career

Yaron Butterfield

A long-term brain cancer survivor shares the story of his cancer journey and where it led his life.

I was at a high point in my career in April 2003, having played a key role in our successful effort to analyze and put together the SARS coronavirus genome. I had stayed up past 4 a.m. on my own in the lab on a Friday night, working with and analyzing the data with the hope of completing the assembly of the genome sequence. The following day, we announced our findings, which made worldwide headlines. Life was good.

Ten months later, on February 23, 2004, I collapsed in a grand mal seizure and was subsequently diagnosed with a very serious form of brain cancer — glioblastoma (GBM). I had to deal with the fact that I had a cancer with an average survival of 13-15 months (if treated).

I prayed. I tried to come up with reasons why I was meant to survive, that I have a purpose in this world. I tried to create an excuse as to why I got the cancer. I meditated and envisioned the cancer disappearing and I told myself that the cancer was gone. I also started to notice the beauty all around me.

Surgery to remove the tumor was a risky procedure given its deep location in my brain, so I was given only chemotherapy and radiation. The tumor shrunk.

However, while planning to return to work, I had a recurrence in late 2005. Because this cancer is very heterogeneous — any cells initially resistant to chemotherapy have multiplied — the new tumor is genetically different than the one at diagnosis and the original chemotherapy rarely works a second time with GBM. Therefore, I was placed on a clinical trial drug that failed miserably.

In the meantime, I ran a marathon in Iceland and married someone whom I met during treatment. I went back on the chemo in the first eight months of 2006 as a last measure of hope that it would work. It did. I’ve been clear of the cancer since September 2006.

I returned to work and continued researching various cancers including brain cancer (diffuse intrinsic pontine gliomas and oligodendroglioma). I wrote and published a piece of software to analyze RNA sequence data and during this time I worked hard in various capacities to contribute back to the brain cancer community, such as coordinating a walk/run where I met and was inspired by other patients with brain cancer.

It has been a long time now since my life instantly changed forever that day in 2004. I now have a beautiful daughter which adds to my inspiration to continue to live and thrive.

Many people over the years have asked me how and what I did to survive, many hoping to hear about specific things that they could apply to their situation, such as diets, foods, drugs and supplements. My response has always been that we are all different and what works for one may not for another. Ultimately, we need to leverage our mind (which can be hard when the cancer is in the brain) and soul to heal ourselves. We have tremendous power and strength to do just that.

Not that medical treatments do not work – I don’t think I’d be here to write this had I not taken the chemotherapy and radiation. But there is increasingly strong evidence that positive thoughts can have a biological and biochemical effect on our body.

I am touched by anyone dealing with brain cancer, often sending healing thoughts. I do believe there is healing energy out there that we can all tap into. As like any cancer, it can affect anyone, regardless of their place in the world. So I have felt a connection with John McCain, Marie Fredriksson (Roxette), Beau Biden (Joe Biden’s son), Canada’s beloved singer, Gord Downie (Tragically Hip), Gordon Foster (the cousin of my good friend, Ben Foster) and many others.

Over the years, I have experienced the long-term effects of treatment, such as double vision, hearing issues, fatigue on some days and subdural hematoma.

Sometimes I have thoughts about where my career and my life would be if I never got the cancer. Then I tell myself, “Wherever we are in life, we get to choose which path to take from those that are in front of us.”

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