How A Hollywood Stuntwoman Survived Her Brain Tumor



BrainTumor_1Photo: Courtesy of Jill Brown; Illustrated By Ammiel Mendoza.
Jill Brown’s 2013 New Year's Resolutions
1. Learn a foreign language.
2. Travel and explore. Florida doesn't count.
3. Chill the F out. Be more patient.
4. Follow my dreams, even if it's challenging. Break the golden handcuffs.
5. Eat cleaner. Häagen-Dazs being the exception. Duh.
6. Prioritize. Figure out what's really important. Act on it.
7. Don't try to control everything and everyone.
8. Squash the ego.
9. Let the little things go.
10. Give back.

Little did I know, three flutes of Veuve in (all while dancing up a storm), my resolutions would be slightly more condensed.

Mid-Season Replacement Resolutions, April 2013
1. To stay alive.
2. To remain neurologically intact.
3. And, if at all possible, to keep my hair.

As a little girl, I was a scrappy stringy tomboy who climbed trees, played football, and jumped bikes over cars. I despised princesses and anything pink. It came as no surprise to my parents when I announced I wanted to be a professional stuntwoman.

And, it happened. I loved it.

I've gone fisticuffs with brides, zombies, gangsters, and creatures. I’ve kissed Clooney, stalked Clive, and hid from Cruise. I've escaped tidal waves, meteors, killers, and creepy producers. Clint almost drove me off a cliff once. I've talked blow jobs with Scarlett. I called De Niro “Pesci” and made Robin Williams laugh. My father told J. Lo how to handle her business. Nicholson shot me, I gave Channing the finger, and Ice Cube said I was "awright."

By 2012, I was kinda over it, but as with any codependent relationship, I had a hard time breaking away. So, when the call came to stunt drive in New York City for the upcoming production, Now You See Me, I said, "Yes."

On the last day of shooting, I woke up at dawn, excited to be done. I was eager to return to a more normal lifestyle of sleeping past 5 a.m., having enough free time to date, and not having to ask permission to use the bathroom. Movie life is not as glamorous as you think.

On the last shot of the last day, the stunt car I was following turned a corner too fast, spinning out of control and into my lane. In those few seconds before inevitable impact, I recalled thinking that I was not ready to leave this world. I also thought that I could have been a better person.

And, then we crashed.

I went to the hospital and, miraculously, was cleared. It was hard to believe I'd escaped yet another stunt crash without a scratch.

The next day was a different story. Cue the fog and dizziness. Everyone seemed to be moving so fast. I felt like I was inside a video game maneuvering around them. My sister Kelly urged me to return to the hospital for further testing. I decided I would go, both because my sister can be relentless and because I thought perhaps there would be an opportunity to meet a hot doctor.
After a CT scan, the physician's assistant (not hot and not nice) stooped down and stared at me with pity. "You present with a significant mass on your frontal lobe." A whaaat? "You have a large, convexity meningioma." Nothing registered. I mentioned that I went to a state university where I majored in tanning and partying, so I would need an explanation without big words.

Medical term: a significant mass on my frontal lobe
Laymen’s term: a big f’n brain tumor

After the emotionally stunted physician's assistant left me alone in the chaotic emergency room, I sat frozen for a very long time. Someone came over and handed me a box of Kleenex. I guess I was crying. It was April 4, and all plans and resolutions would have to be put on hold.

BrainTumor_2Photo: Courtesy of Jill Brown; Illustrated By Ammiel Mendoza.
Although doctors can't pinpoint my tumor's birthday, they estimate that this slow-growing mass was in my head for 10-plus years. The tumor grew from the outer protective sheath of the brain called the meninges. It was slightly bigger than a golf ball and it was pushing my brain to the side — a condition called "mass effect." The neurologists were dumbfounded that I was asymptomatic. I reminded them that I had had symptoms: Just look at all my previous dating choices.

The first specialist was hesitant for a symptomless patient to undergo invasive brain surgery. He sent me to another specialist. That doc also obsessed over my absence of symptoms. He sent me to a neurosurgeon. The neurosurgeon told me I could wait to see if the tumor grew, or he could just go in and get it. He outlined the area he would shave — he was leaving me with bangs and a ponytail. And, nothing in the middle. Who on earth could rock that look? But, it wasn't until he robotically patted my shoulder, as if he’d learned the gesture in some elective humanity class, that I bolted from his office.

A family friend who had successful brain surgery at The Johns Hopkins Hospital suggested I call his brilliant and kind surgeon. I hoped he would be brilliant with resecting my tumor and kind about shaving my head. I was well aware that vanity would be the least of my worries, but I wanted to look normal even if I came through surgery a little off — fake it ‘til ya make it.

It was already April, and I felt I hadn't knocked off a single one of my original resolutions. Scratch that. I was living by number #6 Prioritize (brain surgery before Rosetta Stone). And, I was traveling across the country to see specialists: #2 Travel and explore.

BrainTumor_3Photo: Courtesy of Jill Brown; Illustrated By Ammiel Mendoza.
Dr. Olivi, the neurosurgeon at Hopkins, told me that this incidental tumor discovery was a gift. Candy, flowers, Fiorentini + Baker boots, a new set of golf clubs — those were gifts. Getting one's head sawed in half…not a gift. Dr. Olivi believed that left untreated, symptoms would present as seizures, speech problems, and/or paralysis. As my grandmother liked to say when we played rummy, "And, I'll pass." A seizure would give me brain permanent lesions. Permanent?! Didn't he know I had commitment issues?

The surgery was set for May 9. I had one month to get my affairs in order.

I named my tumor "Norman" after the stuntman who crashed into me and consequently saved my life. It was a pretty dark time, but it was a period in which I had the most clarity of my life. I found myself taking inventory on who and what was important. Go #6 ! I found my previous attachment to work and making money so low on the list. I couldn't go through this alone, so inevitably, #8 Squash the ego came into play. I'm not really one to ask people for help, but I allowed myself to lean on others for support. And, I leaned.

Suddenly, everything was precious. Rain was celebrated and sunny days were mesmerizing. Toxic people were cleared away. I never turned on the television. I wrote thank-you notes and love letters to those who had made an impact on my life. My sister and I went on a "tumor tour" to see Bon Iver and Radiohead. The week before surgery, I had a going away party for "Norman." I realized that it shouldn't take a brain tumor to get all my amazing friends together.

I paid off debts, wrote a living will, and lawyered-up for my advanced directives. I requested my niece and nephew to visit Joshua Tree when they got older to celebrate my favorite place. Then it was game time. I kissed my family with a tearful, "See ya later, but not goodbye" as they wheeled me off to the OR. I controlled everything up until this point, but now it was up to the doctors and the universe and beyond to step in: #7 Don't try to control everything and everyone.

BrainTumor_4Photo: Courtesy of Jill Brown; Illustrated By Ammiel Mendoza.
My surgery was a complete success. The lab results came out benign and I suffered relatively little hair loss to boot. All the neurologically intact people in the house say, "YEAH!"

Recovery was no walk in the park though. I would eat breakfast, stare out the window for a few hours, then it was time for a nap. My mom would make my lunch, more staring out the window, then time for a nap. My 8-year-old niece would take me for a walk, my dad and I would sit outside and look at the trees, and then it was time for a nap. I couldn't be around noise and I couldn't listen to music. I couldn't read, text, or email. After having a 10-minute conversation — you guessed it: another nap.

Life was continuing all around me. My friends were going to parties and concerts, and falling in love. My colleagues were filming new movies. My niece was memorizing her multiplication tables, my nephew was learning to crawl, and I was staring at trees and taking naps. I was eager as a storm to recover, but #4 Chill the F out was a medically necessary physiological response for recovery. I survived brain surgery so big whoop if I missed a concert or the Barneys sale: #9 Let the little things go.

I promised myself to eat cleaner, but I craved a bloody steak every night. Apparently, I needed protein to heal. I stayed away from processed food, but Haagen-Dazs still had a special place in my heart (and on my thighs).

A few months after surgery, I decided that my titanium-plated skull was ready to take a "braincation." And, what better place to look at trees than Oregon, Colorado, and Vancouver. I hiked, biked, and ate wonderful food — and took fewer and fewer naps.

I became obsessed with golf since it was quiet and green, and it didn't hurt my massive incision. I started dating someone, but I warned him not to pull my hair, or my scalp would literally fall off.

Five months post-op, I was cleared to return to work. Although I had been insecure about being forgotten in the stunt world, it no longer felt as fulfilling. I believed it was my duty as a brain tumor survivor to raise awareness and help others, so when Spiderman called for a month of work, I turned it down because it conflicted with a charity walk I was involved with: #6 Prioritize, #8 Squash the ego, #10 Give Back, #4 Follow my dreams, even if it's challenging.

Within a year of my brain surgery, I traveled to South and Central America, and I never planned a single day. I balanced my life between writing and stunt coordinating, and I even took a few stunt jobs here and there. I moved away from things that fed my ego and not my heart, became pen pals to guide other women with similar diagnoses, and continuously reminded myself how fortunate I was.

BrainTumor_5Photo: Courtesy of Jill Brown; Illustrated By Ammiel Mendoza.
Jewish people atone their sins and make resolutions during the High Holidays. The Babylonians promised to pay off debts in the New Year, while the Christians pray in the end of the year for goals to be met. Some follow the Gregorian calendar, some the Jewish calendar, some wait for birthdays, while others cast sins and create resolutions while sporting gender-bender outfits at Burning Man. In the “Year Of Norman,” my resolutions came when my world shook me upside down and a brain tumor fell out. It was only then I stuck with resolutions to live a more appreciative and balanced life.

There are over 170,000 brain tumor diagnoses per year — and 3,000 of those are children. Unfortunately, many tumors have a stamp on them. Thankfully, my convexity meningioma did not. I raise my glass to all my brain-tumor brothers and sisters who have not or will not fare so well. I hold you in my heart and keep you in my prayers. I vow to live as kindly and authentically as I can to honor you.

To learn more about my story or to donate to Johns Hopkins for research and development for brain tumors please see the links below.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_BOhDYbyloc
http://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/