One Patient Finds a Brain Tumor Has Its Benefits
Sep 01, 2017 Cedars-Sinai Staff
Albert Parisi has been a brain cancer survivor for 23 years. He's shared the lessons he's learned during his healing with hundreds, counting them as blessings from his brain tumor.
Albert Parisi jokes that he wasn't really a stay-at-home dad. Rather, he was the CEO of Parisi Enterprises.
It was a role he accepted after he was treated for a brain tumor in 1994. The damage done by the tumor and the 6 weeks of radiation therapy needed to save his life left him unable to continue working as an investment banker and entrepreneur. So, he became the chief executive of his family.
Like all good executives, he wrote daily memos—hard-earned wisdom and life lessons he passed on to his daughter, Ann Marie, and son, Anthony, inked on their brown paper lunch bags. They were eventually collected into two books called Lunch Bag Notes.
"My healing was a combination of two people, Dr. Black, a scientist with faith. And me, just a schlep with deep faith."
"Dearest Ann Marie," he wrote to his daughter. "What would you do if you knew you had only one month left on earth? Who would you see? Who would you call? What would you try? Where would you go? The answers to these questions remind you what elements in your life you should never take for granted."
For a short time in 1994, when he was 39, Albert had reason to ask himself those questions, and they weren't rhetorical. This summer marks his 23rd year as a brain cancer survivor. He credits his long survival to three factors: his faith, his attitude and the skill of his doctor, Keith Black, MD, chair of the Department of Neurosurgery at Cedars-Sinai.
The first time he suspected he might have a brain tumor, he was leaning over to place a ball on a tee while coaching his then 5-year-old son's tee ball game. Pain cracked through the back of his head.
Like being hit with a baseball bat
"I thought someone whacked me with a bat," he says.
He fell to ground and scrambled up quickly hoping no one had noticed. This happened several more times, and the doctors he initially saw blamed it on sinus infections. In June of 1994, his family doctor ordered an MRI. A tumor sat on the lower back part of his brain, pressing on his spinal cord and occasionally blocking the spinal fluid and causing the intense pain.
Within a few days of his diagnosis, he was being wheeled into surgery with Black.
"What's this going to do to my outside shot?" Albert recalls asking Black. "He said, 'How's your outside shot now?' I said it's terrible. 'Well, it's not going to be any better after the operation,' he told me."
It's been their running joke for 2 decades now, coming up every time he comes in for his yearly brain scan and check-up.
The great thing about a brain tumor
The tumor and radiation did some lasting damage. Albert almost entirely lost his hearing and has cochlear implants. He struggles with short-term memory problems. He was unable to return to working. He talks candidly about these difficulties, but also about the opportunities and growth he found in his healing.
He lists off blessings he attributes to being a cancer survivor, people he's met and experiences he's had. As he remembers each one, he'll say, "That's another great thing that came out of having a brain tumor."
All of those great things include helping others. He served as a panelist on a call-in radio show for cancer patients and survivors, where he gave encouragement and advice for two years. He volunteers at his church as often as he can.
He expanded his daily lunch-making duties for his kids to include writing a daily letter on their lunch bags. The tradition started when his daughter was a sophomore, and her tight-knit group of friends—who spent a lot of time at the Parisi house—hit a rough patch. Albert wrote about friendship, loss, character, forgiveness, faith and attitude.
The letters were shared first with Ann Marie's closest friends, and later with hundreds when they were published in Lunch Bag Notes. He did the same for his son, and those were published in a second volume. The books led to him speaking at churches and other venues throughout Southern California.
One of the notes he wrote to Ann Marie and her friends could have just as easily been a note to himself, with advice he follows daily.
"I could have. I should have. But I didn't. Those are the sorriest of words. You can only experience this life once. It is not a rehearsal. There are no retakes. You have the time and talent to touch many lives," which Albert plans to keep doing every day of his life.