Will to Live
Nearly two years after surgery to remove an astrocytoma, Will Pearce finds strength in family, faith in the future, and a love for a life he didn’t expect.
In 2003, at 23 years old, Will Pearce was diagnosed with a grade II astrocytoma. It was located in the left frontal lobe of his brain, in an area of eloquent speech that his neurologists and neurosurgeons thought was too dangerous to operate in. He was given a life expectancy of approximately five to ten years.
Despite this initial prognosis, the tumor remained relatively stable. Pearce completed law school at Emory University, and then lived in New York and London before settling in the San Francisco Bay Area.
In 2017, while living in Mill Valley with his wife and 3-year-old daughter, Pearce began to have debilitating headaches, sleep and memory problems, “fuzzy” thoughts, and minor seizures. On New Year’s Day of 2018 he had a grand mal seizure that caused him lose consciousness and shatter his left shoulder, sending him to the emergency room. There, neuroimaging revealed that the tumor had greatly increased in size and would need to be removed.
Mitchel Berger, MD, chair of the Department of Neurological Surgery, performed an awake craniotomy to map the precise regions of Pearce’s language function and remove as much of the tumor as possible without affecting his ability to speak.
Although surgery removed most of the tumor, the process of recovery was slow and frustrating. Pearce, whose professional identity as a lawyer relied on a high level of functioning and articulation, struggled with the changes in cognition and experienced both anxiety and depression.
Here he talks candidly about the physical and emotional turmoil of facing a life-limiting diagnosis and what it took to build the resilience needed not only to survive, but to thrive and enjoy life after the long road of treatment and recovery.
Q: How was your experience recovering from brain surgery?
A: The first month was kind of a blur because there wasn’t much I could do. Sometimes I had a thought, I knew what I was thinking, but I couldn’t get it out. Or things would scramble in my head. And that was pretty normal for the first two or three months initially.
I got to a point after brain surgery where I was asking ‘What if I never get better? What if I can’t function like a normal human being?’ And if that’s where you land, then there’s not a whole lot of fight left. I had to actually ask myself if I wanted to live. Because choosing to fight is the harder option. But that’s ultimately what I chose.
Q: How did you begin that fight?
A: The first step was relatively difficult. I just forced myself every morning to get up and take my dog for a walk. Which seems like not a big deal, but it was almost impossible. After a few weeks, it got easier and I added one minute of meditation in the morning. That was all I could handle. I’d do the walk, one minute of meditation, and that was kind of my day. Eventually the walks became miles of hiking and mediation went to 5 minutes, and then 10, and that’s what I try to keep up now.
You don’t go back to regular life anytime soon, and the reality is that you can’t go back to the person you were before. Parts of my mind are different than they were before and I finally got to the point where instead of fighting to get back to where I was, I wanted to accept who I am now. I think that is the greatest form of recovery. To say ‘You know what? My decrepit, debilitated self, I love.’ That’s the moment you get through it.
Q. What did you need to learn to embrace after surgery and recovery?
A. Honesty, through this experience I really learned to be honest about my emotions because that meant being honest with myself. It sounds like a trivial thing, but it’s not. I actually feel blessed that I went through all this because those things that were hard to get to before [like being honest about emotions] were very easy after the battle I fought. I don’t have a lot of fear now, I simply want to live and enjoy.
Q. What other things do you think are helpful for going through this process?
A. Being honest with family and friends about how hard things are and asking for help. From the supporting spouse or caregiver position as well, it’s very hard if you don’t have help. Whether that’s financial help or people bringing a meal, it’s incredibly necessary to build an army.
Q: As part of the Brain Tumor Center’s Sheri Sobrato Survivorship Program, Dr. Christina Weyer-Jamora focuses on neuropsychology and cognitive rehabilitation. How was your experience working with her?
A: Working with Chris is amazing. My profession is all mental, so she made my program about improving things that were important to me. And there is a lot of inspiration in seeing that you can get better. It was like training for a sport. We started with short meditations and reading short articles and built up gradually. She saw individually what I needed to get back to the intellectual level that I needed to function as an attorney and that was incredibly helpful.
Q. How quickly were you able to return to work?
A. I went back to work after 10 months, which was earlier than was recommended, to be honest. But it was right for me and I’m glad I did, even if I had to get a little ‘ahead of my skis’. The work with Chris definitely helped me to get back.
Q: Were there other resources at UCSF you found helpful?
A: It was important to have a psychologist or a psychiatrist to talk with about the emotional stuff. For all patients going through this, both neuropsychology to improve mental status and psychology to improve emotional status are vitally important. I also had an outside psychologist, but was also connected with Jamie Cohen who is a therapist at UCSF specializing in cancer. In those sessions I could talk through my fears about life and mortality; that I may not get to see my grandkids. These are tough things to have to accept.
Q: You had your second child this year, was that a big decision?
A: Yes, it was. But I can function, I can support a family, and after a lot of discussion my wife and I decided to go for it. After everything we went through it’s amazing to be on the other side, growing our family and learning how to live a happy life once again.