Stories of Survival

Ezra Fitz: In His Own Words

December 8, 2010

“It is advisable to look from the tide pool to the stars and then back to the tide pool again.”

– John Steinbeck

In late January of 2006, I was looking neither at tide pools, nor at stars. I was staring intently – just as I am now, as I’m writing this – into a computer screen, trying to cover a bone-white Word document with a few bits of black text. A publishing company in Chicago needed a novel by one of their Mexican authors translated from Spanish into English, and the deadline for me to deliver a finished manuscript was fast approaching. For the previous couple of weeks, I’d been sitting at this computer morning, noon, and night, trying to finish the job. So when my eyes started to lose their focus, I assumed it was simply due to strain and fatigue.

Ezra Fitz

Ezra Fitz (Photo by Daniel Dubois)

I saved my work and shut down the computer. I started to walk down the hallway to the living room so I could lie down on the couch and rest. But halfway there, my unfocused eyes were now rolling up and back into my head. I stopped. My mom came over to see why I was standing there in the dark.

“I’m going blind,” I said.

And then the seizure came.

The next thing I knew, I was strapped onto a gurney in the back of an ambulance heading for Vanderbilt University Medical Center. A battery of scans and tests were run. The good news was that I could see again. But the bad news was that I had a malignant tumor the size of a golf ball in the left temporal lobe of my brain. And that meant, in a matter of days, I’d be undergoing brain surgery.

Shifting from a writing desk to an operating room table in less than a week was a pretty precipitous change, to say the least. But there was a sense of peace in the speed with which events had progressed, the way a jetliner can sound almost silent to a passenger even while traveling at over 500 miles per hour. I wasn’t even nervous about the surgery itself; that is, until right before I was rolled into the operating room, when my mom and dad squeezed my shoulders, and I could feel how sweaty their palms were.

I was to be awake and conscious during the operation. Language can be affected by temporal lobe damage, and left temporal lesions like mine can disturb the recognition of words. For someone who makes his living as a writer, these are important factors to consider, and I’d be undergoing verbal and visual tests throughout the operation to monitor my linguistic capabilities. An anesthesiologist was there to prevent me from feeling any pain, but my other senses would remain intact. I’d put in a special request to my neurosurgeon, Dr. Kyle Weaver, for some Rolling Stones music to be piped in through the speakers, but when the surgical saw was fired up, sounding like an angry dentist’s drill on steroids, Keith Richards’ bluesy riffs were all but drowned out. And when the saw began cutting into my skull, I felt a wave of vibrations that couldn’t have been produced by even the loudest of electric guitars.

Nearly five hours later, I was finally allowed to fall asleep. When I woke up later, in the ICU, my sister was in the room with me.

“How are you feeling?” she asked.

I could hear her. That was a good sign. And I could understand her, too. I knew what those words meant. But how much of my left temporal lobe remained? Did I still possess enough language to answer her?

“I want a cannoli,” I replied.

Game, set, and match.

After spending a few more days recovering in the hospital, I was allowed to return home on Super Bowl Sunday. My favorite team, the Pittsburgh Steelers, was squaring off against the Seattle Seahawks, and the halftime show featured my favorite band – you guessed it – The Rolling Stones. The Stones rocked and rolled across the stage, and the Steelers ran up and down the field, winning 21-10.

I was just days removed from brain surgery, and I couldn’t have been happier.

***

Ezra surgery

Feeling surprisingly serene, Ezra gives a "thumbs-up" in the operating room just prior to brain surgery, during which he had to be awake and conscious.

But of course, surgery was just the on-ramp leading up to the road to recovery. About a month later, I started 30 rounds of radiation, and that treatment was followed by 12 monthly rounds of chemotherapy. Also thrown into the mix were two relatively minor follow-up surgeries to clean out a rather stubborn staph infection. Every step along the way – every little bit of progress made – was tempered by the discovery of new challenges and limitations. In college, I was a Division I track and cross-country athlete with a 1:21 half-marathon under my belt. In 2008, I ran the Country Music Half Marathon in just over 2:10. Yes, the race could still be run, but my breezy, six-minute pace had morphed into plodding, 10-minute miles.

Mental obstacles lay ahead as well. I couldn’t pluck words out of the thin air with the same ease and facility as I had before. And it seemed that the more trivial the situation was, the more frustrating it became. I remember one afternoon in a sub shop, trying to order a sandwich with no tomatoes. But I couldn’t come up with the word “tomato” itself. I tried to describe to the person what it was that I didn’t want: it’s a red vegetable, they’re round, and when you slice them they become flat, but at the same time they’re still round … clearly, this was an exercise in futility, and in the end it was all to no avail. I had survived brain cancer, only to be condemned to a life in which all sandwiches would be slathered with thick, slimy, revolting tomatoes. It was almost enough to make me miss hospital food.

Almost.

But let’s face it: this really wasn’t so bad. We all slow down as we get older, and since I like things like pizza, pico de gallo, and salsa, I suppose I could learn to tolerate the occasional tomato in yet another form. Life was different, but it was still quite decent. My neuro-oncologist, Dr. Paul Moots, told me about Gilda’s Club Nashville, a community for anyone and everyone touched by cancer, and it was there that I began forging friendships with other survivors … friendships that endure well beyond the span of human life. I decided not to return to grad school, and instead wrote a novel of my own (attention publishers: call me!) in which one protagonist is a cancer survivor. I rescued a pound hound with big, floppy ears and soulful, plaintive eyes from a shelter in Franklin. I went to my brother’s Princeton graduation, where I met Bill Cowher, former coach of the Steelers, and his wife Kaye, and told them the story about how significant their Super Bowl victory was for me. And most importantly, back in Nashville, I met a stunning and exciting woman whom I would end up marrying.

***

Life looks bleak when you’re diagnosed with cancer, when you’re forced to face that long, slow walk up to the edge of the precipice. But when you’re lucky enough to be able to turn around and walk back upon solid ground, with the slightest of grins traipsing across your lips, it’s hard not to feel pretty good about things. Not great, necessarily, but pretty good nonetheless. A far superior writer than myself from Oxford, Miss., famously spoke of the human condition in terms of enduring versus prevailing. But those of us who have gone toe-to-toe with cancer and lived to tell the tale prefer to use a different word: survival. (Although, thanks to Lance Armstrong, the word “LiveStrong” is now a close second.)

Ezra scan

MRI scan showing a golf ball-sized tumor in Ezra's left temporal lobe before (left) and after (right) surgery.

Survival means taking the good with the bad. Back in July, I had an MRI scan that showed no evidence of tumor re-growth. A clean bill of health. Later that same week, though, Bill Cowher’s wife Kaye lost her own battle with skin cancer. My memories of victory on the operating table and on the football field now had to share the same space with a new memory of loss, of defeat.

But survival also means finding deeper significance in all things great and small. In his book, “The Log from the Sea of Cortez,” John Steinbeck wrote that “quality of sunlight, blueness and smoothness of water, boat engines, and ourselves were all parts of a larger whole and we could begin to feel its nature but not its size.”

The specific type of tumor I had is known as an astrocytoma. It’s called that because it originates in a particular set of brain cells known as astrocytes. And if those names make you think of astronauts or astrology, there’s a reason for that. Astrocytes are surprisingly, yet unmistakably, star-shaped.

In that same book, Steinbeck advised us of the benefits inherent in looking back and forth between the tide pool and the stars, and I’ve been doing that ever since I first read it roughly 20 years ago. Then, I saw (or thought I saw) plankton and planets and all things in between. But now, as a cancer survivor, I also see astrocytes. The very same starry, microscopic cells that play a principal role in repairing the brain after traumatic injuries almost killed me.

But they didn’t. Not yet, anyway. And until that day comes, I’m a survivor.

Photo by Daniel Dubois

36 Comments

  1. [...] Read Ezra’s story. [...]

    Pingback by In His Own Words: Ezra Fitz Shares His Story of Survival After Brain Cancer | Gilda's Gang — December 8, 2010 @ 5:05 pm

  2. Thank you, Ezra, for this beautifully written story of survivorship! Give me a copy of your book & I will start making those publisher calls for you! Cynthia, what on earth does Ezra mean by “plodding through” 10 min miles?????

    Comment by Lynne Cargen — December 8, 2010 @ 7:13 pm

  3. Ezra, thank you so much for eloquently putting into words what it means to be a survivor, to live strong and to remember to look at the tide pools and the stars.

    Comment by Pam Martin — December 9, 2010 @ 1:59 pm

  4. Lynne – I know, right? At that pace, he left us in the dust.

    Comment by Cynthia Manley — December 9, 2010 @ 2:32 pm

  5. Thanks for that great narrative, Ezra! And thanks be to God for your continuing health and heartiness!
    HAPPY NEW YEAR 2011!
    Blessings,
    Mary Daniel in
    Madison, Wisconsin

    Comment by Mary Daniel — December 11, 2010 @ 4:02 pm

  6. Ezra, it’s such a privilege to be friends with your wonderful family; a family that magically turns adversity into inspiration. It is a gift. Thanks for sharing this magic gift with us all. MERRY CHRISTMAS!

    Comment by Marcio Bahia — December 11, 2010 @ 4:50 pm

  7. Thank you, Ezra, for sharing your story. You are winning this race, and what you say makes all of us want to keep moving apace.

    Comment by René Prieto — December 11, 2010 @ 4:55 pm

  8. Thank you Ezra for this piece. It was both moving and funny. Your struggles with language and body after your harrowing experience rang so true. Some believe that we make ourselves and we are by virtue of such struggles. But when I read your heartfelt and clear-sighted narrative, I also felt something else beyond the struggle that makes us who we are. I felt your strong voice and it helped me to make better sense out of our complex relation to what makes us. Thank you.

    Comment by Benigno Trigo — December 11, 2010 @ 6:59 pm

  9. I liked your article a lot and feel happy for you and your family. I wish you happy holidays and a generous 2012, full of love, friendship and good literature.

    Comment by Carlos Jauregui — December 11, 2010 @ 7:40 pm

  10. Ezra, I detect your father’s sense of humor in your writing. You have a remarkable outlook, one that will most certainly serve you well along your journey. Your writing is eminently readable…you place the reader directly in your shoes—or hospital gown, as it were. This was a fascinating account of all you have experienced thus far. Keep up the positive attitude, Ezra—and KEEP WRITING, by all means!

    Comment by Melanie Balzer — December 11, 2010 @ 8:06 pm

  11. Very moving and well-written article. Thanks for sharing your experiences and inspiration!

    Comment by Cory Duclos — December 12, 2010 @ 1:53 am

  12. Ezra –
    My maiden name should ring a bell. Your grandma shared your article with my mother, Dorothy and that’s how I found it. I’m sorry you and your family have had to deal with something so terrifying. May only good, healthy days be ahead for you.

    Comment by Jean Volkens Goodner — December 12, 2010 @ 11:59 am

  13. Way to go Ezra! You still have a wonderful writer’s voice and I’m really impressed by your strength through your struggle. Thank you for sharing this and I wish you and your family all the best! Merry Christmas!

    Comment by David Geoffroy — December 12, 2010 @ 12:06 pm

  14. Ezra,
    I haven’t seen you or your parents for many years but I do think of you all often and have greatly enjoyed seeing photos of the Fitz babies. I was a very close friend of your Uncle Jack, whom I still miss, and I just know how puffed with pride he’d be reading such a profound about struggle with illness, especially since his body was invaded early by polio. When you were pre-school age I visited your home in State College and your love of language was already full force—you had me read a storybook with every other word starting with “D” about 100 times in two days! Your parents have sure done good. Keep up the writing, the world needs such insight.

    Comment by Ellen F Toomey — December 12, 2010 @ 1:33 pm

  15. Thanks so much to everyone for taking time to share your comments here and for sharing his story with others. The editorial staff was also very impressed with Ezra’s story and his keen ability to tell it in such a powerful way. He is a gem!

    Comment by Cynthia Manley — December 12, 2010 @ 1:42 pm

  16. Thank you, Ezra, for sharing your moving and inspirational story.

    Comment by Michelle Shepherd — December 12, 2010 @ 9:30 pm

  17. Really great story and writing Ez! It’s nice to remember how much strength and courage you’ve had through all of this. And see you in a week back in Nashville!

    Comment by Dylan Fitz — December 12, 2010 @ 10:17 pm

  18. Sunday snowy night… I’ve just read this story expecting to feel I don;t know what… maybe to hear a sad story..or to be reminded of a sad song.. Instead, I have laugh a very honest laugh..(thank you for that).. The part about the Rolling Stones, and the imposibility to say the word tomatoes should be in a movie or something. I like the lightness of it, and i mean lightness in the best possible way that there is…As opposed to everything that weights…and that weights you down… It made me think about what happens if one stops taking everything so serious…And one starts poking fun of everything that is tabu or supposed to be sacred and solid, thus heavy..such as cancer, death, etc..I love the irony that surfaces in this writing..and if your novel has this irony I would definetely love to read it…I thought about how cancer, death can become so dogmatic that usually can only be dealt with another dogma such as religion (I don;t mean this as a criticism).
    Here instead, game, irony, joke appear as possibilities to escape or deal with the solemnity (fear) of all that… Anyways, just wanted to say that I enjoy this reading..looking forward for a novel with this authentic (human) lightness on it…

    Comment by Anonima — December 13, 2010 @ 12:19 am

  19. Dear Ezra:
    Thank you for a beautifully written story of survival. You are an inspiration to many others, in addition to being a wonderful person and an outstanding writer.

    P.S. I never achieved 10 minute miles, ever. (Another of your excellent qualities has come to light.)

    Comment by Marvin Kronenberg — December 13, 2010 @ 6:00 pm

  20. Your grandma Elaine, shared your story with me. Wow! You and your family went through such scary times–I remember praying for you during that time! You are an excellent writer. Keep it up!
    My dad was John Volkens, brother of Herman Volkens.

    Comment by Janice Volkens Elliott — December 13, 2010 @ 7:36 pm

  21. Ezra:

    Thank you for finding these words. You and your family have the grace and dignity of the genuine. I have a lot of respect for all of you. I look forward to reading your novel.

    Comment by John Maddox — December 13, 2010 @ 11:01 pm

  22. Ezra … We here in the Midwest are all so proud of your accomplishments . ( Your article has made the rounds here in Iowa and Nebraska !! ) Lots of love , Grandma .

    Comment by Elaine Volkens — December 15, 2010 @ 5:37 pm

  23. Hi Ezra, I am so proud of you, and of your positive outlook on life. You set a great example for all of us! Thanks for sharing your experience with others,
    Aunt Carol in Iowa

    Comment by Carol Volkens Dare — December 16, 2010 @ 6:37 pm

  24. Although we would not have chosen a cancer journey for our family, we’ve all found better versions of ourselves through the process.
    There have been dark moments, (shared) sleepless nights, and tears. But our family has also tried to spend our time laughing together as much as possible–and have we ever succeeded at that!
    This is a powerful and profound piece of writing and should give many people cause to reflect upon the purpose and meaning of their own existence.
    We are grateful to the Vanderbilt-Ingram Cancer Center–and especially–the dedicated people of the Brain Tumor Center.
    Love, Mom and Dad

    Comment by Earl and Julianne Fitz — December 17, 2010 @ 9:38 am

  25. Well, we at VICC wish we could work ourselves our of jobs. But if we’re looking for silver linings, getting to know Ezra and your family is one of them too. Happy holidays to y’all and everyone in your clearly very loving and extended network! — Cynthia Floyd Manley

    Comment by Cynthia Manley — December 17, 2010 @ 9:51 am

  26. Ezra, wow what a story! I knew you were fighting cancer and that you are a cancer survivor but I never knew the full story… until now!

    As a childhood friend of yours, I knew you had the writing gift. This article crystalized that you haven’t thrown that gift away! I felt I have been with you during this journey.

    I am so thankful to be your friend throughout the years and I look forward to catching up soon.

    Matthew

    P.S. My mother pass along the link to this article. She received it from your mother. Say hello to your lovely wife and family! Happy holidays and happy New Year!

    Comment by Matthew Royse — December 19, 2010 @ 4:08 pm

  27. Ezra- Thank you for such your beautifully written survivor’s story of dealing with cancer. You are a courageous and funny young man. When we learned you had married, Tim Brown’s Mother told me she could feel Tim smiling for you. Best wishes always and go Steelers!

    Comment by Alice Williams — January 5, 2011 @ 3:05 pm

  28. Ezra- Oops- Meant to remove “such” from my comment just sent to you. So much for proofreading! Happy New Year to you and all your family.

    Comment by Alice Williams — January 5, 2011 @ 3:09 pm

  29. Don’t we all need editors!

    Comment by Cynthia Manley — January 6, 2011 @ 8:11 am

  30. Ezra, Your Mother told me about your article at Gilda’s. I to, am a brain cancer survivor and can relate to your writings. Thanks for sharing. Your parents have been a blessing to me and my family. I’d love to meet with you sometime. Take Care, Hugs Sharon Dauchot

    Comment by Sharon Dauchot — January 11, 2011 @ 10:24 pm

  31. Sharon, thank you so much for sharing! We will be sure that Ezra gets your message.

    Comment by Heather Burchfield — January 13, 2011 @ 5:10 pm

  32. Thank you for sharing your story, Ezra. It is a gift. Whether in life or death, watching others bravely face cancer has taught me so much. My dad ultimately lost his life to cancer, but he fought brilliantly to the end, helping us all understand the meaning of love and life more fully. I add your example of strength and character to the volumes I learned from him. Thanks.

    Comment by Jonathan Wade — February 3, 2011 @ 11:21 pm

  33. Ezra, thank you for this enlightening article. It shed light on how things can change in just an instant. Your grandmother Elaine gave me this article to read. She is such a neat person and is so proud of the accomplishments you have mastered, God Bless you and your famil.

    Comment by Helen Brandenburg — February 19, 2011 @ 1:44 pm

  34. should have said, God Bless you and your family,

    Comment by Helen Brandenburg — February 19, 2011 @ 1:45 pm

  35. Zra–thanks for sending me this link, it’s really helped me face the challenge that’s ahead of me

    Comment by Andrew Smith — March 29, 2011 @ 12:45 pm

  36. Thanks for all the inspiration over the years!

    Love,

    Tu Hermanito

    Comment by Duncan — April 24, 2011 @ 10:34 am

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