Did You Go to Hong Kong Just to get Brain Surgery?

I’m not sure where this rumor started, although it may be related to the fact that there was an article in the New York Times on medical tourism right around the time all of this was happening.

But no, I didn’t go to Hong Kong to get brain surgery.  I went there to see a very good friend of mine, and to visit a blow up doll factory (more on this later).

In fact, I had no idea I needed brain surgery until I saw this:

This photo was taken with my phone, at the exact moment I discovered I had a brain tumor.

(Click on the picture to see a super high res version.  (It might take a minute to load, but it’s really pretty cool.  The tumor is that dark spot with the white circle around it.)

What you’re seeing is a partial MRI scan of my brain, starting at the front of my skull (the top left image) and proceeding backward to about the middle of my head.

“Wait,” you say, “where and when did you get the MRI?”

Here’s the story:  after I got to Hong Kong, the headache wasn’t going away, and it actually started to get a little worse.  I knew I had to start doing something about it, and the first step was getting an MRI of my brainio, which according to my doctor friend would show me if there was anything seriously wrong.

So I booked myself an appointment for a scan at a hospital waaaaay up on a hill in Hong Kong.  (That city is insane, btw.  How they have the confidence that these 40 story skyscrapers they’re propping up on a 79 degree incline are not going to fall over is beyond me.  I mean– it’s not brain surgery, but it’s impressive engineering.)

Anyhoo, so I get the MRI, and I’m at the counter paying for it ($700, which is quite a deal compared to the 8 grand I would later find out it costs at Cedars Sinai) when I decide to poke my head back into the lab to see if I can see anything on the computer screen that shows the insides of my brains.  As I look through the door, a technician is hanging up a film that looks like it’s got brains on it.

I move in closer, look at the film, and the first thing I notice is my name on the bottom right.  The second thing I notice is that weird glowing ball of darkness you can see on the last two rows of images.  I point to it.

“What’s that?” I ask, knowing it was a brain tumor.
“I no a docta!” says the technician.

Translation:  “It’s a fucking brain tumor, pal, but I’m not gonna be the one to tell you that.”

It was actually really nice that no one had to tell me that, that I never had to have that conversation with a somber-faced doctor who with his best breaking-terrible-news-face says “You have a brain tumor.”

I saw it myself.  Plain as day.  And to be honest, more than anything it was a relief to finally figure it out, to realize THAT THING is what’s been causing the freaking month-long headache.

So what do I do now?  (So what did I do then?)

Well, I went to get something to eat.  (I wasn’t allowed to have any food or drink since the night before, so you can understand this reaction.)

By the time I got back to the lab to pick up the MRI films and DVD (they put a digital copy of the images on a disc for you which you can look at in 3D on your computer — it’s pretty awesome) the phone was ringing.  It was Dr. Chang, the neurologist who had referred me to this lab (not to be confused with Doctor Chan, the Man Who Would Operate On My Brain–old Jonny Slow Hands).  Dr. Chang knew I was supposed to fly home to LA the next day, so he had called the clinic hoping to be able to speak with me.

They hand me the phone.

ME: “Hello?”
CHANG: “Char-less?”
ME: “Yessss?”
CHANG: “Bro, do NOT get on that fucking plane tomorrow night.”
ME:  “Why not?”
CHANG:  “Cuz your brain could explode into a thousand pieces, causing you to die instantly. You’re lucky that didn’t happen to you on the way over here actually.”
ME:  “Uh Oh.”

(note: This conversation has been fictionalized for dramatic effect.  Although to be honest, the actual conversation was probably far more dramatic than I have rendered it here.  Anyway he definitely did not call me “Bro,” but he did warn me that I could / could have died instantly from flying at high altitude with the tumor in my head.)

So the crux of all of this was that I now knew that a) I had a brain tumor, and b) it clearly needed to come out.

So that is why I had brain surgery in Hong Kong.

So How Did You Know You Had a Brain Tumor?

This is a question I’ve been asked a lot, mainly by people who have this worried look on their face like they’ve been suspecting for years that something was terribly wrong and that they themselves might have a brain tumor.

Friends, I’m happy to tell you this: chances are you probably don’t have a brain tumor.  (Caveat: If you’ve had a headache for more than four weeks, I’d recommend getting an MRI just to be sure.)

That’s how it all started in fact.  I’m no stranger to headaches (from boozin’, getting my head too hot from running up mountains when it’s 100 degrees out, normal things like that).  But this headache was different.  It wasn’t all that painful, it was just… not going away.  First for a week, then two weeks, then holy-shit-it’s-April-why-do-I-still-have-this-stupid-fucking-headache?

Every morning I’d wake up and shake my skull a bit to check things out, and it was always there.  It wasn’t getting worse, but it wasn’t getting better.  Eventually I stopped taking Advil, because I didn’t want to be hiding anything or ignoring anything– I wanted to know if it was still there.  And it was.  For four weeks.

That and the weird dizzy/deja-vous spells.  Those were trippy.  One time when I was cooking, one time when I was jogging, one time when I was just talking with a friend, I’d suddenly get this intense surge of memories, kind of like deja-vous but different, as if someone was pressing their finger on the little spot in my brain that contained a particular memory.  I’d get this intense wave of sensations, like I could remember what it smelled like, felt like, sounded like to be in whatever particular situation I was remembering.  It was pretty amazing actually, one of the things I’m glad I got to experience.  It’s sortof like getting this weird inside tour of your brain and how it works: apparently what was causing it was the actual tumor growing and pressing on some of the memory spots in my brain.  But we’ll get to that.

So those were the symptoms.  Oh wait– I also passed out twice.  Only for a second or two each time, but I did!  I got the vapors and spilled to the floor, eyes rolled back like a Prohibition-era dame who just witnessed a bank heist.  Then I’d wake up nary a moment later thinking “Why am I lying on the floor with this spatula in my hand?”

It wasn’t all unpleasant though– one of the nice side effects (which would appear after the dizzy/pass out/deja-vous spells I mentioned above) was this intense refreshing sensation.  It felt as if I had just returned from a six year vacation.  The first time I passed out, when I woke up I felt like everything around me was brand new, like I was in a foreign country, even though I was sitting on my own couch.  For someone who feels most alive when traveling foreign countries, it was really nice to feel this way.  And that sensation continued for the whole month.  So aside from the dull headache, the having-a-brain-tumor-growing-inside-my-head thing was actually pretty neat in a lot of ways.

Anyway, neatness aside, it was pretty clear that there was something going on upstairs that was a little goofy (or at least more goofy than normal), and I of course wanted to get to the bottom of it.  As luck would have it, a friend of mine who is a doctor (in French Canadia) happened to be in town, and she was extremely helpful in pinning down what the cause of all of this might be.

The possibilities she came up with were the following:

  • Migraines (there’s actually this one rare type of migraine that has very similar symptoms to what I described above)
  • Epilepsy
  • Or the worst case scenario:  a BRAIN TUMOR.


I think from the beginning I kept assuming the worst, since it would be easier to accept if that happened to be the reality, but part of me thinks that I knew all along it was a tumor.  Something about it just felt like that, like there was this physical pressure inside my skull, like things just didn’t fit in there the way they were supposed to or the way they used to.

Which is exactly what wound up being the case.

But anyway, I didn’t know that until I went to Hong Kong.

Diagnoseeshio della Brainpiece

(editor’s note:  This is the original email I sent from the hospital in Hong Kong, trying to explain everything that was going on.)
Hey Everybuddy!
OK so here’s the news, it’s not really good or bad, it just is what it is and it’s exactly what I was expecting, so I’m just gonna roll with it and do what I can do to kick this thing in the brain-ass.
The pathology came back and it says that this is a “glioblastoma (rainbow effect added for levity), which is what every doctor has been saying since the beginning.  So I was ready for it, no surprises there.
It’s cancer, but the tumor has been (very successfully) removed.   And it has been removed without doing one iota of damage to my brain.  Except for the sweet shiner on my right eye, I am physically and mentally at 100%.  Which is really awesome – this fact in itself (that I’m not demented or blind or crippled now, and can still speak passable French) means everything to me.  I feel great.  There are a lot of people in this hospital who are doing much, much worse than me.  I’m also incredibly lucky that I caught this thing when I did.  It could have killed me, but it didn’t.  And it’s not going to.
One thing I’d like to ask of you: please don’t go internet researching glioblastoma and how horrible it is.  All you’re going to find is depressing survival rates of 3 to 4 minutes.  This is because the VAST majority of people who get this are 70 year old men that already have diabetes and heart disease and shriveled testes and a nagging wife, so they’re bound to croak anyway.  And apparently it only affects 1 in 100,000 people, so when you discount all them old folks I’m a real rarity.
Which is a very very good thing– I am young, and healthy, with a very powerful immune system and an even stronger sense of hope.  I’m not Lanceypants Armstrong or anything, but I am very much in the absolute top percentile of people who should be able to beat something like this.  Every doctor I have talked to has said this exact thing– survival rates that you’ll find on the internet are absolutely meaningless & inapplicable to my situation.   I am going to do what I need to do, and work from the information my doctors give me.  And it’s going to work.  So don’t look up scary stories of old dudes dying from exploding nuclear brain tumors – it’s a pointless exercise in making yourself depressed for no reason (also I’ve been told this thing isn’t contagious, so we can still share a soda, which is great).
What happens now is that I have to do treatment to make sure it doesn’t come back.  There is and probably will be tiny little cells that have the potential to regrow, so I have to keep them down.
Treatment will probably be a combo of chemo and radiation, both of which are pretty mild  (not the super scary image people have of chemo – these are just in pill form with very little side effects).
There have also apparently been lots of developments in recent years treating this exact type of cancer – so as my doctor pointed out, having this happen in 2012 is SO MUCH BETTER than if it had happened to me 10 or more years ago.  The trick will be finding the treatment that works right for my particular tumorama.
What my neurosurgeon, “Slow Hands” Doc Johnny Chan, said to me (this gave me a lot of hope, and I already had a lot) was that because of how much things have changed & improved in recent years, it’s now fair to look at this type of cancer as a “chronic illness”: something that could be fatal but can also totally be managed.  Like diabetes, or anything else where you just have to keep checking up on it and keep it under control and you can live a long and healthy life.
And if I can ride this shit out for 5, 10 years, there’s a very good chance I’ll reach a day when they figure out a way to really truly just wipe it clean out of my brain.   So that’s my goal right now.
I can’t tell you guys enough how much I’ve appreciated all your love and support.  In many ways, very specifically because of all the love that’s been coming this way, this has been one of the most beautiful, rewarding experiences of my life.  I really hope and believe that it can be the beginning of something wonderful, rather than some scary crappy debbie downer situation.
Speaking of which:  my head is up high, my spirits are up higher, and I’m gonna laugh and fight and run and skip my way through this thing.  And if you guys are willing to laugh and fight through it with me, it would mean everything to me.  (Emphasis on the laughing– there’s not gonna be any boo hoo baby sniffles from here on out, got it?)
So that’s the news for now!  I won’t know much more until I get back to LA and start working with brainio-doctors there to develop a treatment plan.   I am hoping to fly back to LA some time early this week.  It depends on if my brainpiece is all healed up – I will do another MRI hopefully on Monday that will determine if I’m safe to fly.  Basically they just have to wait long enough to make sure there’s no air left in there that could pressurize during flight – he said it usually takes 10-14 days, but I might be good to go if the MRI is clean.   I’m crossing my fingers– I can not WAIT to just be home again, and see everybody, and go jogging with that sweet silver beauty Dutch the damn Dog who you all know I love so much.
I’m gonna hit the sack.  Feel free to pass this email on to anybody who asks, it’s been really hard keeping everybody in the loop, and there isn’t enough time in the day to write to everybody individually.  Hopefully this will clear up a lot of questions.
I love you!
– Chad
PS: I leave you now with some photos from today, of The Man Who Operated On My Brain, my personal savior and Brian Guardian, none other than…
Doctor Johnny “Slow Hands” Chan Ping Hon!
In addition to being adorable, he’s a total brain-slicing ninja badass.
When I gave him the t-shirt he was so psyched, he insisted on putting it on immediately so we could take a photo together.
We also wrote a song together (sung to the tune of Queen’s “We Are the Champions”):
Heeee is the Chan Ping Hon
My friend.
And he’ll keep excising
Til the end…

Heeeee is my Chan Ping Hon
Heeeee is my Chan Ping Hon!
No time for tumors,
Cuz he is the Chan Ping Hon…

Of my brain!

And to give you an idea of how stir crazy (and physically fine) I am – here’s me on the workout machines a few hours ago, burnin’ up a sweat.  Really all I wanna do is go run up a mountain.
Finally, here’s a t-shirt design that I’m working on: