Brandie Boyd Meyer’s symptoms began in her first trimester of pregnancy. It was late 2015, and the episodes made her feel shaky and “out of it.” But she chalked it up to pregnancy or low blood sugar. But after she gave birth in mid-2016, the symptoms continued.
For the next four years, she got diagnosed with anxiety and alcohol use disorder, tried multiple medications, and attended talk therapy and Alcoholics Anonymous meetings. At the same time, her life deteriorated; she felt like a failure as a mother, she struggled at work, and her relationship with her husband suffered. But in August 2019, she finally received her true diagnosis: a tumor the size of a peach on her brain.
She had a tumor on her brain for over ten years.
Meyer was 35 years old on that fateful day. The healthcare executive came to work, told her assistant about her terrible headache, and unsteadily went to the “wellness room” where she took multiple breaks during the day. Her colleagues thought her drinking habits had reached a breaking point. They drove her home and called Meyer’s husband, Andrew, who found her on their bed in a fetal position, their toddler cuddled on top of her. He assumed she had passed out from overdrinking. But that night, Meyer had another episode in the middle of the night. Andrew woke up to see her standing over him, not able to say a word.
They went to the ER. There, she finally received her proper diagnosis. A CT scan showed the tumor on the frontal lobes of her brain. The doctors thought she might only survive for a few more months; they believed the tumor had existed for at least a decade. They rushed her to the UT Southwestern Medical Center operating room and managed to remove 75% of it.
Despite all of the doctors she had seen before that point, no one had realized her symptoms were indicative of cancer. After the operation, Meyer met with Elizabeth Maher, a neuro-oncologist on the Harold C. Simmons Comprehensive Cancer Center staff at UTSW.
“I was totally blown away by her whole story,” said Maher. She said the tumor was an oligodendroglioma, which is a rare form of cancer that attacks the spine and brain. The symptoms tend to include cognitive issues, personality changes, memory loss, and seizures. 
But Maher found that previous doctors had attributed these symptoms as anxiety or alcoholism, although no one ever issued a blood alcohol level test. “She had her baby and she starts to have depression and anxiety and worsening short-term memory and difficulty concentrating and confusion,” Maher said, adding that these symptoms are often dismissed as postpartum. “I think the classic missed opportunity along the way is that she was a young woman who was getting treated for anxiety and depression and getting worse. It can be very hard for women to get anyone to take them seriously.”
Anxiety and Alcoholism
Unfortunately, Maher’s self-diagnosis played a part in her misdiagnosis. In hindsight, she wished she had consulted with her primary care doctor. But her story is an important lesson for all doctors and patients: “Don’t be wedded to the narrative,” Maher concluded. “Be wedded to the facts.”
After her son’s birth, Maher struggled with balancing her demanding job with caring for a newborn while her husband traveled often for work. She spoke with friends, and based on their experiences, she assumed she had anxiety. She told her OB/GYN about feeling shaky, “out of it”, and panicky. After her thyroid tests came back normal, the doctor prescribed medication to help with anxiety and depression, which did not help.
Meyer had no history of mental health issues, so she had her first psychiatric appointment with a physician assistant, who prescribed her a new antidepressant, then another when the first didn’t help. At that point, Meyer was unshakably tired throughout the day and struggled to cope with her job promotion and energetic toddler. So she began drinking in the evenings as a form of self-medication, and couldn’t remember what happened after that the next morning. She and her husband attributed the memory loss to the alcohol. 
She began talk therapy, saw a new psychiatrist, and went to AA meetings. But her symptoms worsened, with panic attacks happening almost daily. She began having seizures but no one realized since they attributed them to her other issues. The day she had been taken home by her assistant for “being drunk” she hadn’t drank any alcohol. The symptoms came from the tumor.
What are Oligodendrogliomas?
Oligodendrogliomas are a rare form of cancer that begin with certain glial cells. Glial cells surround nerve cells and aid their function, which leads to related symptoms, such as:
- Memory problems
- Behavioral and personality changes
- Language difficulty
- Issues with balance and movement
The symptoms also depend on the tumor’s size and location; some patients are asymptomatic. Low-grade oligodendroglioma grows slowly, and years could pass before it causes symptoms. They typically only spread to nearby tissue, but high-grade anaplastic oligodendroglioma grows and spreads quickly to other parts of the central nervous system. 
These tumors are diagnosed through neurological exams, CT scans and MRIs, and biopsies. Treatment depends on the grade, size, and location of the cancer, but it tends to involve surgery to remove the tumor, radiation therapy, and chemotherapy. The general outlook for people with oligodendroglioma also depends on the grade, size, and location of the tumor, as well as the patient’s age and overall health. Some may recover completely, some have symptom-free lives with the tumor, and some need indefinite treatment to keep the tumor from spreading. 
Fortunately, Meyer’s health has improved tremendously since the surgery. Her memory, cognitive ability, and quality of life took a turn for the best, and she now takes medication that slows tumor progression, as well as medication to manage seizures, and has regular MRI scans. Additionally, she has joined a cancer support group, which included another woman with oligodendroglioma. “I’ve made my peace with it,” Meyer said, “and then I’ll think ‘Oh — I’m a cancer patient and I’ll always be a cancer patient.’”
Keep Reading: ‘I Thought I Had A Headache. It Turned Out To Be Herpes (HSV-1) — In My Brain.’
- “Doctors believed she had anxiety disorder — until a CT scan revealed something else.” Advisory Board. February 21, 2023
- “She thought anxiety and drinking made her ill. The truth was scarier.” The Washington Post. Sandra G. Boodman. February 18, 2023
- “Oligodendroglioma Diagnosis and Treatment.” National Cancer Institute. July 21, 2021
- “Oligodendroglioma.” Cleveland Clinic. February 25, 2020