Although Cassie Miller has had major health challenges for more than a decade, she remains a positive and upbeat individual who views her fate with an “it could be worse” attitude.
The Elmira woman was diagnosed with a non-cancerous brain tumour in October 2013 at the age of 15. That followed years of issues, including severe headaches, that doctors did not take seriously.
“I was actually born with this brain tumour, and [the doctors would say] ‘oh, it’s just a headache, it’s just a migraine. She needs to drink more.’ So as I got older, the headaches started to get worse, but again [they said] ‘it’s just migraines,’” Miller explained.
In February 2013, she took a turn for the worse and was constantly nauseous and would frequently throw up; her exhaustion would cause her to sleep up to 20 hours a day. Finally, in October, Miller’s mom took her to St. Mary’s General Hospital, where a nurse, who got migraines himself, said that what she was going through was not normal. From there, she went to McMaster Children’s Hospital in Hamilton, where she finally got answers.
However, Miller does not fully remember being told she had a tumour.
“I just remember sitting in this room with the doctor and my mom and there were literally stickers all over the wall and everything. I just kept staring at those. I wasn’t even honestly paying attention to what the doctor was saying because for years I was told this was just a migraine. So once everything just made sense, it was just kind of like ‘wow,’” she said.
In a weird way, it was a relief to finally have an answer, Miller added.
“Being told this was a migraine, it was just like, ‘there’s something else wrong.’ I just could not stay awake. I had headaches all the time. I was throwing up all the time. And it just wasn’t normal,” she said.
Miller said there is a good chance she might not be alive today if her mom hadn’t acted. While the tumour, which was slightly smaller than a golf ball, was an issue, it had also developed a cyst which meant she required an ommaya reservoir to allow for drainage when necessary; a shunt was put in to help with spinal fluid drainage.
“It was stressful, I’m not gonna lie. I mean it’s brain surgery, so of course [it’s scary]. My first surgery ever is brain surgery and it’s risky,” she said.
That October 2013 surgery was the first of four that she has had. However, due to the risks involved, the tumour was not removed until April 2021.
“It wasn’t causing issues, so they left it there because if they removed it I could have gone blind, I could have been paralyzed…But January 2021, I went to see my ophthalmologist and he was like, ‘Well, your optic nerves are looking a little funny. So maybe it’s time to get the tumour removed,’” Miller explained.
However, a small piece of the tumour could not be removed, and Miller underwent six weeks of radiation treatment to reduce the size of what remained.
Beyond the treatment and the sickness, she had to do a fifth year of high school, and it has been hard for her to keep a job because of frequent appointments at McMaster’s adult clinic. Despite that, Miller’s positive attitude allows her to recognize what others have gone through, including fellow patients at McMaster.
“Seeing the little ones, what they’ve gone through just breaks your heart. So what I’ve gone through, yes, some people might say it’s a lot, but to me, it could be worse,” she said.
“There’s days that you just want to scream and swear and all that fun stuff. Punch walls, whatever, I’m not gonna lie. But just this is what I was given. And this is what I have to deal with. It just is what it is.”
Determined to raise money for research to find a cure, Miller and her family and friends will participate in Kitchener-Waterloo Brain Walk at Waterloo Park on June 24. The Kitchener event is aiming to raise $80,000.
“This year, it’s actually going to be all of us together again, which will be nice. It will be seeing people that have survived tumours, and it’ll just be an exciting event,” Miller said.