When 30-year-old Courtney Burnett began to experience strange symptoms while completing her medical residency program in Thailand last year, she knew something was wrong.
Her left hand would tingle and cramp, and her throat would do the same, contracting anywhere from 30 seconds to over a minute at a time.
After realizing what she was experiencing could be focal seizures, Burnett rushed to a Thai neurology clinic to get an MRI scan. When they found a cancerous tumor in her brain, she was flown back on an emergency flight to Minnesota for surgery.
Earlier this month Burnett, of St. Paul, published her memoir, “Difficult Gifts: A Physician’s Journey to Heal Body and Mind,” where she talks about her journey to come to terms with a terminal cancer diagnosis. Because brain cancer research is often understudied and underfunded, 10 percent of the book’s proceeds will go to the American Brain Tumor Association and the Brain Tumor Network.
A WAY TO COPE
Since January 2020, the Dayton’s Bluff resident has undergone two major brain surgeries, six weeks of radiation therapy and six months of chemotherapy while also completing her residency program at the University of Minnesota.
Burnett said writing has been a way for her to cope with the unexpected diagnosis. In May, she started a blog as a way to post about her treatment, update family members and share her own feelings about the process (one of her most recent posts was on Feb. 8, titled “Chapter 78: I’m Still Here”).
Over time, Burnett’s blog garnered support from readers all around the world, some of whom reached out to tell her about how much her story impacted them, even if they didn’t have cancer themselves.
“My sort of unexpected suffering, or whatever you want might want to call it, has been cancer,” Burnett said. “But I think that we’re all going through something very unexpected, especially after this year, (and) I think a big question going through many of our minds right now is, how do we find happiness and joy despite our lives being turned upside down?”
After researching other books and memoirs written by authors with malignant tumors, Burnett said she learned that many of their books were published after they died.
She decided that wasn’t going to be her story.
In two months, Burnett wrote her entire manuscript as fast as she could to ensure that she would still be alive to see it published, and even went through an independent publisher to save time.
Somewhere in the writing process Burnett said she realized how rare it was for people to speak openly and honestly about difficult topics like mental illness, spirituality and death.
Because of that, she took it upon herself to write with “absolute honesty,” with a goal of helping others find happiness and feel less alone in whatever life changes were happening to them.
“The message I really want people to take away from the book itself is that I have found cancer to be a very unexpected gift in my life, and it has brought me incredible happiness and an incredible gratitude for making the most out of every single day,” she said. “And I don’t know if anything else would have done that for me.”
A CHIEF RESIDENT
Now a chief resident of internal medicine based at Regions Hospital, Burnett said the diagnosis and her own experience as a patient has helped her become a better and more understanding physician.
“It’s very easy to go to a very dark place when a child gets a diagnosis like this. But through not only talking to her but then reading her words and seeing how people are responding, I began to see how it’s not the worst that could happen. Because it’s helped her evolve and become even more special,” said Mary Hager, Burnett’s mother. “It’s important for all of us to take some time to look at how we look at life. [We] forget that we have to … appreciate the joy of each day.”
Burnett’s book is available for purchase on Itasca Books, Amazon, Barnes and Noble and her website https://www.elephantlotusbraintumor.com/pre-order.
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