My Journey
Living with a Brain Tumor

The article below, about my husband and I, appeared in the February 9, 2005 edition of the Wenatchee World newspaper. The full text of the article is below the image.

Care and Care Alike

Couple see each other through life-threatening situations

by Dee Riggs
World Staff Writer

When they married in 1996, Sandy Beardsley and Dan O'Connor looked forward to years of healthy living.

She was 35 and he was 39. They loved the outdoors, especially hiking, biking and skiing.

"At our age, especially when you're such fit people, you think you're always going to be that way," Sandy says.

That all changed in June of 1999, when Sandy suffered a seizure caused by a tumor deep in her brain.

For months, Dan took care of her as she went through radiation.

Slowly, as the tumor shrank, the couple started living their normal, healthy lives again.

Then, last October, Dan suffered multiple broken bones when he was struck by a pickup truck while riding his bicycle on the highway near Peshastin.

For months, Sandy took care of him as he struggled from bed to wheelchair and, most recently, to a walker and a cane.

It was a total role reversal.

"I learned how to see the other point of view," she says. "I didn't realize how traumatic it must have been for Dan as the caregiver."

"It helped me, too," he says, "to see what it's like to be helpless and not strong."

A strong base

Dan and Sandy have been a couple since 1989, and Dan helped raise Sandy's young son from a previous marriage. They say their relationship has always been based on a strong love and respect for each other.

"He's always been my rock, no matter what," says Sandy. "I can confide in him, lean on him. He is a very stable person, a very calming person."

"She's always been kind of my inspiration," says Dan. "She's opened up a lot of things in life that I probably wouldn't have experienced, like fatherhood. And she's really active in the community and drew me into those things too."

But was this base strong enough to support two life-threatening situations that were headed their way in the late 1990s? In hindsight, the couple say, there was never a doubt.

For three years, starting about a year after their marriage, Sandy experienced headaches, neck pain, vertigo, memory problems, feelings of deja vu and saw flashing zigzag lights. The symptoms didn't happen all at once, so Sandy tried to ignore them. She couldn't do that any more after June 7, 1999. Dan was awakened by a loud thump and looked over the side of the bed to see his wife having a seizure on the floor

A subsequent MRI revealed a tumor, called an astrocytoma, so deep in her brain that surgery was out of the question. Sandy says doctors told her surgery could leave her blind.

The best option was radiation, which she chose to have in Spokane where her initial diagnosis was made. Five days a week for six weeks, the couple stayed in a Spokane hotel, coming home only on weekends. Sandy was able to take time off from her job as an elementary school teacher in Orondo.

Dan, a graphic designer for the Forest Service, continued working by using a laptop computer.

"He helped me in every way," Sandy says. 'When you're first diagnosed with something like that, there's that shock You feel like you're in a dream. Just having that calming presence was such a help. He gave me that feeling of "You're going to get through this. You're going to be OK."

Once radiation was completed, they returned home, but Dan drove Sandy to work every day because she did not yet feel it was safe for her to drive. He also found himself doing extra house-hold chores because the radiation made Sandy extremely tired.

Did he feel any resentment about that?

Dan looks surprised at the question.

"I didn't really think about it at the time," he says. "You kind of get motivated, not just by love, but by the fear of what could happen."

As time went on, Sandy and Dan say they came to realize that Sandy's cancer, which had not spread to other areas, was not going to kill her.

In the summer of 2004, they celebrated Sandy being cancer-free for five years.

Their relationship, they say, was back on an even keel. Sandy was well, and Dan was no longer her caretaker.

Role reversal

Then, last October, came the bicycle-truck accident. Dan was riding from his home to work at the Forest Service office in Wenatchee when he heard, maybe for a second or two, the sound of a vehicle accelerating, then he felt a violent impact.

"I didn't have time to flinch," he says. "I don't remember getting launched into the highway."

The pain, he says, "was instantaneous and pretty horrendous."

Examinations at Central Washington Hospital revealed a great deal of damage to his left arm and left leg.

The impact caused a chunk of his left tibia, the larger of the two lower leg bones, to be sheared off below the knee. Doctors would put the bone back together with a metal plate and four screws.

The impact also broke the top of his humerus - the large, upper arm bone - in two places, and dislocated his shoulder.

Dan spent four nights at the hospital.

"I slept in a cot right next to his bed the whole time," Sandy says. "When he was first in the hospital, it really hit me, that this really strong rock now really needed me to be a strong rock"

When Dan came home, the physical work began for Sandy. Each time he moved from bed to wheelchair, or vice versa, she had to lift his leg. She also had to navigate a wheelchair and help Dan with the most basic of life chores.

"I couldn't stand," Dan says. "Just getting over the tub edge was always epic."

Helping get them through the ordeal, they say, were friends who built a wheelchair ramp and offered a great deal of emotional support. A special gift from a friend in Portland was a jersey autographed by famed bicyclist Lance Armstrong, who has long been a hero of Dan and Sandy's.

Looking ahead

Now, three months into his recovery, Dan is doing more and more for himself. He gets around with a walker and can use a cane for short distances. He continues working for the Forest Service out of his home, and is working with a physical therapist twice a week. The couple joke that he is now up to 15 minutes on a stationary bike, a big contrast to the 165 miles he rode around Mount Rainier in one day last summer.

They are optimistic that Dan will recover most of his physical abilities, but they acknowledge that that is a long way in the future. Sandy is optimistic that she will remain cancer-free.

Have these life-threatening experiences changed their marriage?

"I wouldn't have thought we could have a stronger relationship, but it has strengthened it," Dan says. "It really puts into focus what's important in life, how important the love of your life is when you realize it all could have been taken away in an instant."

Sandy says she hesitates to talk about change because her answer sounds like a cliché.

"We don't go a day without saying we love each other because we don't know if there's going to be that next day"

"When you have events like ours," adds Dan, "you realize those aren't clichés. They are real."

On the Web

Sandy Beardsley shares her experiences with a brain tumor on the Web. She says that has allowed her to reach out to others going through the same medical crisis. "I get e-mails from around the world she says.

Go to Chapter 18