Throughout the month, we’ve featured the stories of game developers creating apps to raise funds for brain tumor research, and featured a documentarian whose photos of a couple battling GBM are an inspiring call to action for the brain tumor community. As brain tumors do not discriminate based on class, gender, ethnicity or age, we and our loved ones use our own abilities and talents to regain power in our own lives and the lives of others.
Barbara Conaway is an artist out of Tucson, AZ. She’s an avid animal lover. After being diagnosed with a brain tumor in 2010, her life was irrevocably changed. While unable to run her husband’s veterinary practice as a result of her diagnosis, surgery, and recovery, she doubled down on her art. Her animal studies evoke warm emotions and a sense of kinship with her subjects. Most recently, she auctioned prints of her work off with all proceeds benefitting brain tumor research. We had the opportunity to connect directly with her about her life, art, and how she now views the world.
“Beauty is more beautiful, what is good in life before is much more enjoyable after in a way that no one can explain to you. I hate that this happened to me but I love the way that I enjoy life now.” – On perceptions after recovery
What was life like before diagnosis?
Better than I thought at the time. I was busy with both my painting & managing my husband’s veterinary practice. It is an ambulatory-only practice with an office space in a small strip mall. My studio was in the space next to the office so it was easy to work both businesses. The recession had a large impact on our business so things were a little difficult but also pretty exciting.
I had just been invited to participate in a special art exhibition of the Sea of Cortez wildlife in Mexico that was going to open at the Sonoran Desert Museum in the spring of 2013. This was in 2010. I ended up having to back out of my participation but at the time it was very exciting to have been invited.
How did you find out / what symptoms did you have?
I didn’t recognize the initial symptoms (fatigue, mental mistakes, clumsiness) because I thought they were the result of the stress from the recession and I thought I wasn’t getting enough sleep. In July 2010, I was at an estate sale with my daughter and I had some garbled speech. Just a couple of words that I didn’t think anyone heard, so I went and sat down. When I went to tell my husband about it, my speech was fine. It was followed by a strange headache. Still thinking it was stress related I didn’t go to the emergency room. That happened on a Saturday. On Tuesday I went in and saw the nurse practitioner, she ordered an MRI for the following Monday. My doctor called me soon after and told me [I had a brain tumor] over the phone.
What type of tumor?
Meningioma, grade 1.
How has your recovery been?
Much longer than expected. I still feel like I’m recovering although I think I’m probably just trying to get used to my new normal. I still think I can do a lot more than I should so I frequently end up dealing with some severe fatigue and/or inability to talk right.
You’ve continued with your art. How important is it to have this drive while in recovery?
It’s critical. Not being responsible for the practice any longer was much more difficult than I had anticipated. It wasn’t like a job – it was more like a way of life. The art has been like a lifeline to what my world was like before in that I was still connected to the animals. Even with all the love & support from my family, I still find importance in feeling like I can contribute something and that’s what the art does.
What do you wish you would have known when you began this journey that would be of benefit to others recently diagnosed?
I don’t think doctors know as much about how you are going to respond to treatment as you think they should. Everyone is so different when it comes to the brain, unlike any other organ in the body. I see the question about how long it takes to get back to normal from so many newly diagnosed on the facebook support groups. The worst part was the fear.
The art has been like a lifeline to what my world was like before in that I was still connected to the animals.
I don’t think you can get back to what you were mentally before your skull is cut open because it will fundamentally change how you perceive everything. Beauty is more beautiful, what is good in life before is much more enjoyable after in a way that no one can explain to you. I hate that this happened to me but I love the way that I enjoy life now. I love being able to work, to drive, to speak and I have an appreciation for all I can do that for awhile I wasn’t able to do. It’s much easier to not stress out about the small stuff after you’ve had a brain tumor.