Beating the odds
21-year-survivor on how to live well with brain cancer
Michael Dunbar had been getting frequent headaches for months before his family and friends finally convinced him to seek out medical care. After a neurological exam, his physician ordered an MRI for the next day.
But Dunbar would not make it to that appointment. Later that evening his wife rushed him to the ER upon noticing that the left side of his face was drooping. He got the brain scan at the hospital, which revealed that he had a tumor known as a glioblastoma. A nurse there and a family friend advised him to get to UC San Francisco.
After his tumor was removed, Dunbar and his wife learned that the prognosis for patients with glioblastoma could be as short as six to 12 months. They wondered what they should tell their three small children.
That was now more than 21 years ago.
“I tell people who ask, ignore any of the statistics,” Dunbar said. “They don't apply to any one person.”
Five years ago, he experienced another rare event – a small stroke caused by the radiation therapy to treat his cancer. As he was recovering, UCSF neuropsychologist Christina Weyer Jamora, PhD, RN, told him about the Sheri Sobrato Brisson Brain Cancer Survivorship Program.
The program takes a holistic approach to supporting brain tumor survivors in managing the lasting impacts of cancer and treatment. Through generous philanthropic support, the program offers a wide array of services – ranging from support groups and peer mentoring to exercise classes and neurocognitive care.
For Dunbar, the program has provided exactly the kind of satisfaction and fulfillment he was looking for after he had to stop working. He now tries to immerse himself in many of the survivorship program’s events, including the monthly brain tumor support group.
“The Sheri Sobrato Brisson Brain Cancer Survivorship Program not only offers information, wellness classes, community connections and direct support, but it also offers opportunities for survivors like Michael to contribute in very meaningful ways,” said program manager Naomi Hoffer. “Michael and others are here to offer deep understanding and perspective, and together they have created a web of community support that reaches far beyond the walls of what any program could offer.”
For the last year and a half, Dunbar has also been volunteering as a member of the UCSF Thrivers, a group of trained peer support mentors. Thrivers meet weekly over Zoom to support each other and practice their skills for supporting others who are struggling to cope with brain cancer and its treatment.
Hoffer says that through volunteer roles as panelists, mentors, editors and advisors, the UCSF Thriver community has helped thousands of others who are newly diagnosed.
“When people tell me that I give them hope,” Dunbar said, “that's the best thing I can hear.”
He advises other survivors to take advantage of all the services the UCSF Brain Tumor Center offers to both patients and their caregivers, emphasizing how important his wife’s support has been throughout his journey.
Dunbar, who previously wrote and edited documents about products for engineers, was glad to put his skills to use in helping review a manual detailing cognitive strategies for people with brain cancer.
He appreciates getting tools he can incorporate into his daily life that are from a patient perspective. For example, fellow Thriver Kat Shotz leads a 4-week meditation and yoga class for the UCSF neuro-oncology patient community, and has served as a panelist on a couple of the monthly Living Well After Brain Cancer Treatment webinars.
Shotz, who was a yoga instructor for years before she was diagnosed with a brain tumor, is open about how her practice has changed to embrace a gentler approach that has helped her feel more peace and compassion. Having to work through the anxiety that often accompanies going through treatment and follow-up brain scans resonates with survivors like Dunbar.
“I want to do whatever I can to get better and stronger – whether that's mind or body,” he said.
Dunbar does physical therapy exercises and goes out for daily walks in his neighborhood in Alamo. He also solves jigsaw puzzles – a hobby he has had since childhood that now doubles as part of his ongoing cognitive rehabilitation therapy. The puzzles help with his spatial awareness, and many are of photos that remind him of what matters most in his life.
“It's not about breathing life; it’s about living life,” Dunbar said on being a long-term survivor. “I want to make sure that I'm living fully.”