On Nov. 4, 2014, Greg Townsend wanted to know one thing.
“Tell me how to beat it,” he said to his doctors.
“You’re not going to,” they told him.
“Yeah, I am,” responded Townsend, whose brain cancer diagnosis came hours after a grand mal seizure.
Severe headaches ailed Townsend long before his seizure. His mother thought he should see an eye doctor.
“(My story) is like most people’s,” he said. “I’d had headaches for a while and never thought anything about it.”
“You have things going on, you don’t think nothing about them. They seem like everyday things. Then something big like that happens. Boom.”
Emergency room CT scans showed something worse than eye problems: a mass about the size of an egg on his brain.
Townsend was rushed to St. Dominic Memorial Hospital in Jackson. Two weeks later, part of the tumor was removed.
Since it was wedged in the part of the brain that controls motor skills, surgeons could not remove the whole mass.
Townsend received chemotherapy for more than a year, but radiation was never an option because of the tumor’s place on his brain.
“The tools that we have to treat (brain cancer) are limited,” said Dr. Mark Anderson, an assistant professor of neurology and the Chief of Neuro-oncology at the University of Mississippi Medical Center. Anderson did not perform surgery on Townsend and is not his doctor.
“Many of these tumors, when they grow in the brain, it interferes with normal parts of the brain,” which sometimes makes radiation therapy and surgery difficult or impossible. “You can’t do radiation to the whole brain because of the effects it would have.”
Ironically, the blood-brain barrier, which keeps toxins and bacteria out of the brain, can also block medications.
“Something that is very protective in some situations prevents our ability to treat brain cancer in others.”
Trial and error
Because of the seizure and his surgery, Townsend lost his driver’s license for a year, and his work as an on-the-road technician took a hiatus. His bosses at Purvis Business Machines found other work for him to do in the office.
“I was fortunate enough to work for employers that understood,” he said, comparing his situation to that of others with brain cancer, who are often out of a job because of reduced cognition, memory or focus. Sometimes the stigma has more effect than the cancer itself.
He wanted to show that he wasn’t ill. When people commented that he didn’t look well, it bothered him.
For the sake of his two kids—a now-23-year-old son and 16-year-old daughter — and his mother, Townsend refrained from talking about his cancer and mostly shared appointment dates and MRI updates.
His daughter thought the surgery fixed everything. It took time to tell her the truth, Townsend said.
In fact, Townsend says, there is no “cure” to his cancer, only treatment. Even if the entire tumor were removed, there would still be cancer cells in his brain.
What he was initially diagnosed with, an oligodendroglioma tumor, dashes life expectancy to roughly another 12 or three-and-a-half years depending whether it is Grade II or Grade III, respectively. Doctors gave Townsend two to five years. The number sunk over time.
“I’m well past what they expected me to do,” he said.
His attitude has sustained him, he insists.
“(Cancer is) something that you’ve got to get up and whip every day,” he said. “Or else it whips you.”
A clearer vision
Learning to live with a disease that not only debilitates the body, but also the mind became a repeated game of trying one solution, finding out it didn’t work, discarding it and trying another.
Townsend sometimes provides West Lauderdale football commentary on radio station WJDQ. One night, he counted the number of players on the field to see if there were too many or too few.
Double vision muddied the picture. He closed an eye and got the right number.
“You learn to take a deep breath … and you just learn,” he said.
In 2014, West Lauderdale assistant football coach Derek Pouncey gave Townsend advice that stuck. Pouncey also had brain cancer, though his condition started as metastatic melanoma and spread. He died later that year.
Townsend regrets not writing down the conversation, but one line in particular left a mark.
“You fight it day by day,” Pouncey told him.
Townsend took the advice and never went through the period of anger that many associate with brain cancer, he said. Instead, he treated the disease as a prolonged challenge to overcome.
“Brain cancer is definitely an odd thing because there can be a lot of external stigma attached to it,” said Anderson, not commenting on Townsend’s case specifically. “People assume if you ever have brain cancer, you’re gonna be sad, you’re gonna be depressed.”
Emotional surveys of brain cancer patients give results consistent with other terminal diseases, he said.
Members of a support group — family and friends — are often the ones most emotionally hurt.
“All of this time, when (Greg) has missed work, it’s been because of a doctor’s appointment,” said his mother, Nellie Townsend.
When she first heard the diagnosis, Greg’s nonchalance convinced her that he would beat brain cancer. As time went on, the likelihood lowered.
“I told my pastor I never thought I’d have to watch my child die,” she said. “Mamas are supposed to go first.”
But Townsend’s courage in the face of cancer has made her stronger, she said.
“He’s made a different person out of me,” she said. “Things I used to worry about, they don’t bother me.”
Finding a network
Two months after his diagnosis, Townsend started a personal project. He wanted to find others with brain cancer, so he turned to the internet.
Now he has a large network of friends who live all over the country. They don’t always get to meet in person, but texts and instant messages compensate.
“With (anyone), with my mom, with my kids, I can tell them what’s going on, but it’s hard to understand,” he said. “It’s nothing against that person; it’s just hard to understand. When you’re dealing with somebody who’s going through the exact same thing, it’s a lot easier for them to say, ‘Yeah, I’ve dealt with that too.’”
One friend is a high school student in Clarksdale. At 45 years old, Townsend doesn’t worry about himself much.
He does worry about his young friend and others like him.
Cancer is a leading cause of death for children and teens around the world, according to the World Health Organization, and brain cancer is one of the most common types among young people. Around 300,000 children are diagnosed each year.
“With being that young, you definitely have a hard time because you have to miss school,” said Townsend. “Kids don’t understand what it does to you. The chemo and all, it takes a toll on you.”
He hasn’t met his friend in Clarksdale “eyeball to eyeball” yet, but he plans to change that soon.
A new life
Few drugs are available for brain cancer patients, but strides are being made. The Society for Neuro-Oncology is one example, said Anderson. Last year’s meeting saw 2,500 doctors, nurses and other experts in attendance, more than double the number in previous years.
Efforts to improve treatment are growing and worldwide.
“It’s a very international collaboration,” he said, referencing researchers everywhere from Africa to the Americas.
Though the trial process for new brain cancer drugs is slow, there are solutions, Anderson said. One might be multi-arm testing of drugs in the trial process. Instead of a placebo group and a drug group, multiple drugs could be tested against a placebo, accelerating the process and saving resources.
“The challenge of finding new drugs for brain cancer is being actively pursued,” he said. “The fruits are still probably several years off, but we’re hopeful.”
“There’s optimism that we’ll find a breakthrough in the next five to 10 years.”
For Townsend, life’s intricacies, its people and its meaning have become clearer.
Anger is rare, and little problems, like being cut off in traffic, might induce a laugh.
Little gifts, like spending time with his kids, take on a new meaning. When he watches his son coach, sounds, smells and images from the field seem more important.
“The things for years you grew up doing—the smell of the grass, oddly enough the smell of the sweat, you kind of treasure it.”
When he was diagnosed with brain cancer, a new life started, he said.
“It’s a different life,” he said. “It’s not altogether bad. You learn to look at things differently. Things that used to be a big deal or a big bother to you, ain’t that big of a deal all of a sudden. You see things that you didn’t see. You appreciate a whole lot more.”