Losing a brain tumor, gaining perspective

Jessica Moskowitz was diagnosed with a brain tumor, so she decided to throw a party ... stay with us here.

Story highlights

  • "New Day" Digital Producer Jessica Moskowitz was diagnosed with a brain tumor in September
  • Moskowitz, then 28, was at work when she began to feel strange symptoms and was rushed to the hospital
  • After surgery and ongoing rehabilitation, she says, she gained an appreciation for life she'd never had

First Person is a series of personal essays exploring identity and personal points of view that shape who we are. The latest contributor is Jessica Moskowitz, a digital producer for CNN's "New Day."

(CNN)I've dressed up in the same type of costume on Halloween for years -- always a superhero. Not one character in particular. "Just any excuse to put on a wig and a cape," I'd tell friends.

Last year, I found a more specific persona. I would be Wonder Woman.
See, this Halloween was different: I'd been diagnosed with a brain tumor just weeks before, and donning this costume was a lighthearted way to feel empowered ahead of the biggest fight of my life.
    It was Saturday, October 25, 2014 -- earlier than usual for me to think about a costume for my favorite holiday. But this year, I wouldn't be able to party on the same day as everyone else.
    I was organizing one last massive celebration to honor my life and the people I love before my brain surgery two days later.

    The day everything changed

    It all started early one morning in September while I was wrapping up my work as a digital producer for CNN's "New Day."
    As I was typing at the computer, letters were dropping off the right side of the screen. I started to feel strange and went to the nurse's office in my building to ask for help.
    My speech began to slur, my hands were tingling, and my head was pounding. I also forgot my co-workers' and bosses' names.
    The nurse thought I could be having a stroke and called an ambulance.
    Within an hour, I went from thinking I might have a migraine because I needed new glasses to being rushed to the hospital.
    I was 28 years old.
    They stripped off my clothes in the emergency room to hook me up to the machines that would reveal I wasn't having a stroke.
    Great news! But then, what was going on?
    After an MRI, we had the beginning of an answer. When I looked at the scan of my brain, sitting there, big as an orange, in the left hemisphere was a large black spot.
    My speech came back fully after a few hours, but a terrible headache lingered all day, and I was kept in the hospital overnight without discussing with the medical staff the full details of what was found on the scan.
    My family and I were scheduled to meet with a brain surgeon the next morning.
    About 6 a.m., I was asleep when a resident came into my room and woke me up. He wanted to talk about my case, he said.
    "My parents are coming later, and we're meeting with the doctor," I told this stranger.
    "Ms. Moskowitz, we suspect you have a meningioma."
    He could have been speaking Russian.
    "We see you have a brain tumor, and you'll have to have surgery to have it removed," he said in a calm, even tone.
    I don't remember what I asked him after that, but once he left, I felt hopeless and alone. Tears poured out of my eyes, and I sucked in air when I ran out of breath. It was the most afraid I've ever been in my life.

    Doctor shopping

    When my parents arrived, we met with the surgeon, who offered more clarity.
    He suspected that the tumor was slowly growing deep in the left ventricle of my brain for years. And the incident at work? Perhaps a miniseizure related to the tumor, but they couldn't be sure.
    I was told the mass wasn't life-threatening at that point and probably was not cancer, but the location was very deep and unique.
    The tumor was growing in an open tunnel in my brain and would eventually grow big enough to block the flow of spinal fluid. Surgery was recommended sooner rather than later.
    After my terrible experience earlier in the day with the resident who loved to share bad news and disappear, I knew I didn't want to have my surgery at this hospital.
    It was time to shop around for a brain surgeon.
    Two weeks after the incident at work, I saw a doctor at NYU who talked about the surgery in dire terms. There was a 10% chance I would need a shunt to help drain excess fluid from my brain for the rest of my life.
    Unsatisfied with that option, I kept browsing.
    Wonderful colleagues and friends within the CNN Medical Unit helped me find Dr. Jeffrey Bruce at New York-Presbyterian Hospital.
    Dr. Bruce is a tall, commanding man with the confidence and swagger you'd hope for in a brain surgeon.
    Somehow, his description of the seven-hour procedure and what would come later didn't seem as scary as before. We booked the date for the surgery at the end of October.
    "This is just like a pebble in my brain," I told friends. "They'll get it out, and I can move on with my life."

    One last celebration

    Two days before the operation, my friends and family gathered at a bar in Brooklyn for that pre-Halloween, prebirthday, presurgery party.
    Jessica poses with mom Beverly and dad Joel Moskowitz
    I wore a short blue wig with my Wonder Woman outfit and set up a photo area to document everyone's costumes.
    We all laughed and danced for hours, and at the end of the party, whoever was left did the Hora. We ran in and out of a circle, joyfully raising our hands in the air.
    Ghosts and pumpkins mingled with birthday decor. Although I was born at the end of November, I wanted to cover all my holidays since I had no idea what the future would hold.
    What if they took the tumor out and it was cancer after all? What if they couldn't get the whole thing during the operation and had to do radiation later? What about that shunt? What if ANYTHING went wrong and I would never be myself again?

    Going under

    At the hospital, my family bickered about who got a chair in the waiting room as I sat silently, waiting to be whisked through the double doors and into the rest of my life.
    Once I was on the operating table with the IV in, the anesthesiologist started the magic medicine, and I barely started to count before I was knocked out.
    I woke up one brain tumor lighter and surrounded by the people I love.
    Jessica's initial recovery involved lots of sleep
    I spent five days in the hospital, mostly sleeping from the antiseizure medicine.
    Real Halloween came and passed.
    Friends and co-workers came to the hospital to tell me stories about their holiday adventures and share pictures of their nights.
    If I was ever lonely or uncertain about my place in the world before, having this experience was a relatively quick way to discover that I have tremendous love and support in my life.

    Forward into the future

    My recovery has taken a lot of hard work.
    I went straight from the hospital to inpatient rehab to weekly outpatient care, working on speech, occupational therapy and memory recall.
    I did so well there, I was named February's "Patient of the Month." When my doctor recently told me I've had the best recovery she's ever seen over her 20-year career, I burst into tears of joy.
    The experience has given me confidence in my resilience and more perspective than before on the importance of living in the present, because things could always be worse -- completely out of nowhere and totally unexpectedly.
    That fact was solidified when just a month after my surgery, my best friend's sister died from a brain aneurysm. Survivor's guilt overwhelmed me, but so did a sense of gratitude.
    I don't have an answer as to why I'm OK and my friend is gone, but I know it makes me push harder as I sweat through spin class and linger longer while I stare at sunsets and beautiful views. My zest for life itself -- the good and bad -- is so much stronger than before.
    I returned to work part-time, working one day a week starting in February. I'm at two days a week now and hope to be back producing digital content full-time for "New Day" by May.
    Though I'm now at the edge of 30 with a new identity as a survivor, I don't consider myself a superhero.
    At least not until next Halloween.