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How my brain tumor affected my career as a thriller writer

This is advice that everyone needs to hear.

“I’ve got good news, and I’ve got bad news.”

Such a tired opening. I was wearing a hospital gown, sitting up in a gurney, playing with a surgical glove that I’d blown up and decorated with a smiley face. It was a month shy of my eighteenth birthday.

“I’ll start with the bad news.”

I wasn’t worried, I was bored. I was rife with teenage invincibility, and nothing serious was ever going to happen to me. I fiddled with the blown-up glove.

“You have a brain tumor.”

Stop.

My hearing went fuzzy. I could feel myself falling. The doctor must have told me the good news, but I didn’t hear another word. Tears sprang from my eyes. The planet stopped spinning.

I fix things. It’s what I do, and I was suddenly faced with something I couldn’t fix. Most of the doctors I saw in the coming weeks made it clear that I may not make it. The tumor could kill me, the surgery could kill me, but either way, the “me” I had always known, was already dead. My life will forever be split into two pieces, before the tumor and after. Whether or not I would survive was out of my hands, but this diagnosis forced me to make a choice. I could stay the person I’d been, or I could change.

I wasn’t proud of myself at that age. Adults and authority figures were always telling me about this magical thing I had that I was choosing to waste, this glorious, life-affirming gift I was given. A gift I had elected not to open. Potential.

I could have been a great student if I just tried. I could have been an outstanding athlete if I just quit smoking and went to practice. I could have been an upstanding citizen if I just surrounded myself with more savory individuals. I had the potential to be great. And that’s precisely why I chose not to open that gift. Because what would happen if I tried to live up to my potential and failed? I’d have nothing left. So, I kept it tied up in a box, I stuffed it under my bed, and I told myself that I would go get it one day if I needed it.

After seeing the best doctors in the best hospitals in New York City, and having them all tell me that there’s a chance I’ll survive, and if I do I’ll have to relearn how to walk, the left half of my face will never work again, I’ll be half deaf, and all of this will happen only if I’m not a vegetable—I wrote a will. I did it during statistics class with a turquoise pen, and I realized that I didn’t have anything to give anyone. So, that was the day I reached under my bed and pulled out the box. The only thing I had to leave was a legacy, and I didn’t want to leave a tarnished one.

Seventeen years after my brain surgery, I published my first book, The Blind. Eighteen months after that, I published my second book, Once a Liar. Both books follow characters who are faced with a life-changing event.

Sam James in The Blind receives a diagnosis that devastates her, and she has to choose if she will remain the person she used to be, or if she will live up to her potential. The journey is arduous—it’s easier to keep the box under your bed—but on her way, she learns the truth about herself. With that truth, with that forgiveness of who she really is, comes peace.

Peter Caine, the main character in Once a Liar, spent the bulk of his legal career defending the indefensible, and his life-changing moment comes when the tables turn, and he is accused of a brutal murder. To prove his innocence, and to be believed, Peter has to change from the person he has been, into the person he can be.

Three months after surgery, I walked across the stage at my high school graduation and collected my diploma. Two months later I backpacked around Europe, and then I started college. I survived. The recovery was grueling and lasted a decade.

My survival led to a career in psychology, a love and appreciation for everything I have, and a drive to achieve whatever I can with my limited time here. As an author, I put my characters through personal ringers, to see how they will come out on the other side. My characters are human, and they, like real people, love to keep potential partially or completely untapped.

It’s safe there, tucked under the bed, but if you never try, you’ll never really know who you are and who you can be.