Debbie’s Story: A Family of Caregivers

Debbie’s Story: A Family of Caregivers
Within seconds of sitting down with Debbie, I had learnt that she had a brain tumour, her husband had kidney cancer, her eldest daughter was born with a physical disability affecting her mobility and then her youngest daughter, Debbie called her “the healthy one”, also had a brain tumour. At some point, each of them has learnt to care for each other.
Debbie’s brain tumour came first. In 2003 she was diagnosed with an acoustic neuroma after a phone call with her boss where, on the one ear it sounded as though he were speaking Latin but, when she switched to the other ear he sounded normal. After 16 hours in surgery, she spent a year in and out of hospital with multiple CSF leaks and a mistake that almost killed her. As a result, she has lost some hearing, has no ear drum in one ear, and suffers frequent debilitating headaches. 
Despite all she went through, she confessed to having tremendous guilt when her youngest daughter was diagnosed with a brain tumour, thinking that she had given it to her. The genetic testing proved otherwise. 
Her daughter’s diagnosis did not come easily. In November 2015, eight-year-old Sammy had a very bad case of pneumonia. After Christmas she had healed but continued to lose weight, and she had constant headaches. Doctors dismissed these symptoms as migraines. By April, Sammy’s school were concerned when her face started to swell. The doctor again said these were migraines and possible allergies as they had recently relocated to the country. By late June, the Emergency Room said it was classic migraines and refused to scan her. Sammy had been a competitive dancer since the age of four, so Debbie knew that something was seriously wrong when Sammy said she couldn’t keep up anymore, saying “Mommy, my feet won’t do what I want them to”. Debbie continued to advocate for her daughter and so her pediatrician referred her to a neurologist. Five minutes into that appointment, when Sammy’s eye started jumping during a simple eye tracking test and she had fallen over during a balance exercise, they knew something was seriously wrong. Sammy was sent for an emergency MRI which revealed a 5.5cm Juvenile Pilocytic Astrocytoma (JPA) compressing on her brainstem. 
They were sent to London Children’s Hospital and were greeted by a huge team. Sammy went through 18 hours of surgery. When the neurosurgeon came out, she said: “I couldn’t leave until I got the whole darn thing”. Debbie refers to this surgeon as Dr. Angel for this surgery and for the exceptional care they personally gave to Sammy. 
Following surgery, Sammy was told that she wouldn’t be able to dance again. Debbie told her: “Never accept what they tell you. Listen to it, absorb it, then prove them wrong.” Sammy’s surgery was in August. By October, she was dancing again. Recently, Sammy was awarded third place overall in her category! 
That doesn’t mean that her recovery was easy. Her elder sister helped Sammy when she had to learn to walk again. Debbie said: “My kids switched roles for a while, it’s helped them to understand each other better”.  
This year, both mother and daughter will walk side-by-side as brain tumour survivors, proudly wearing the distinctive blue t-shirts, at the London Brain Tumour Walk on June 10, 2018. 
The family also frequently attend BrainWAVE events. “BrainWAVE has been a life-line for Sammy. It’s so great to meet other families who understand what it’s like to feel different”.
Debbie explains that Sammy now feels: “I was supposed to be her Mom because I could help her, as I understand what it’s like to have a brain tumour”.

Debbie is now taking that level of understanding to help others on the brain tumour journey by helping to compile a new caregiver resource. We are so grateful to this ‘family of 4 Strong’! 

Thank you Debbie, for sharing your story, for fundraising for Brain Tumour Walk and for volunteering!

< Back to all stories

Story posted: May 2018

Share This

Featured Story

Piper's Story: a dream more precious than Olympic gold

Hi, I am Piper Gilles. You may know me as a world-famous ice dancer. I competed in the PyeongChang 2018 Olympic Winter Games. I am a 7 time world team member and a 7 time Canadian medalist. But the title that means the most to me is far more personal. It’s that of daughter to my amazing mother Bonnie Gilles, who I lost to glioblastoma on May 27, 2018.

Learn more


Doug's Adventure

I am Doug, I have brain cancer; I am told it is terminal, but the “good” kind of terminal. I can assure you that receiving that news...

Learn more

Kathy's Volunteer Profile

Kathy shares her story of volunteering for Brain Tumour Foundation of Canada as part of National Volunteer Week. “I am proud and happy...

Learn more

Upcoming Events

  • 17/Jun/2019: Virtual Support Group for Caregivers (Eastern Canada): Virtual Support Group for Caregivers (Eastern Canada)... Learn more >
  • 17/Jun/2019: Guelph Support Group: Meets at Hospice Wellington, Community Program Room, 795 Scottsdale Avenue,... Learn more >
  • 17/Jun/2019: Mississauga Support Group: Meets at Westminster United Church, 4094 Tomken Rd., Mississauga, ON... Learn more >
  • 17/Jun/2019: Edmonton Support Group: June: potluck in William Hawrelak Park (weather permitting), meets at... Learn more >
View All Events >
Thank you to the donors whose contributions make this website and all programs, services and research possible.

Copyright © 2019 Brain Tumour Foundation of Canada. Charitable Registration #BN118816339RR0001