Brain Tumor Survivor

Meant to Live

Zachary Zortman and his girlfriend, Annie, had just moved to a new town. They both had jobs as therapists, and life was good. When he was diagnosed with a Grade III astrocytoma, their plans took a different turn. With an “I can beat anything” attitude and the support of his family and friends, Zachary came through one of the toughest years of his life. Today, he is married to Annie, working at his “dream job” and giving back to the cancer community through his music.

The third time I had a “brain freeze,” I was driving. I answered a phone call by putting my cell phone next to the left side of my head, and suddenly I couldn’t speak. I was aware of everything, so I pulled over. The feeling passed, but my girlfriend insisted that she drive us to our local hospital. I had a CT, and 20 minutes later they told me I had a 5-centimeter tumor on the left side of my brain. I was 29 years old.

I was still trying to figure out what was going on as nurses and doctors, all with concerned looks on their faces, hooked me up to an IV, put me on a stretcher and loaded me into an ambulance to transport me about 30 miles away to a larger hospital. The scariest part was seeing my girlfriend crying as the ambulance doors closed.

I spent almost a week in the hospital while doctors planned how to surgically resect the tumor. After looking at the X-rays and seeing how the tumor presented itself, they thought it was benign. We wouldn’t know until after it was removed and biopsied, but everyone around me felt really encouraged by that. For some reason, though, I had a feeling it was cancer.

Six days later, I had a six-hour surgery. Because the tumor was pressing on the area of my brain that affected my memory and my speech, they woke me up for about 20 minutes during the surgery to test those functions. They showed me pictures and asked me questions as they made contact with different parts of my brain. I’m a musician, so I even sang a couple of songs. From the reactions of the people in the operating room, I think I sang pretty well.

The tumor was shaped like a perfect ball, which made it easier for the neurosurgeon to remove all of it. It was called a complete resection, which was the best-case scenario. Some swelling post-surgery made it hard for me to talk at first, but that passed.

When the doctor called to tell me it was a Grade III astrocytoma, the conversation ended up being pretty quick. I basically thanked her and hung up. I told my girlfriend, then laid down on the bed to absorb it. The information on the Internet wasn’t promising. People with that grade of tumor generally lived about a year or two.

That was the bad side of the Internet. The good side was that I discovered there is a lot of research going on about genetics and brain tumors. My tumor was an IDH1-mutated astrocytoma, and I found information showing some people with the same mutation were living 20 years. I’ve talked to my doctor and read a lot of positives and negatives but, overall, it’s encouraging.

Even though the tumor was removed completely, I needed treatment to remove remaining cancer cells. I chose to have proton therapy because the radiation was focused on just the parts of my brain that needed it instead of parts of my body that didn’t. I had chemotherapy about half an hour before getting the radiation. I started with a lower dose of chemotherapy and slowly ramped up as we went along.

Getting the insurance paperwork in place was time-consuming. I also made some nutritional changes. I’d always eaten a mix of healthy and unhealthy foods. I cut out things like smoking cigars and eating potato chips, and I added more greens.

Being fitted for my radiation mask was tough. It took about an hour and a half to create it. Luckily, I only had to keep it on for 15 or 20 minutes for each treatment. I had about 34 treatments.

I believe my diet changes helped me get through chemotherapy and radiation. I only got sick once, and I think it was because I’d eaten a lot before one of my first high doses of chemotherapy. I had a little bit of fatigue, but it didn’t seem to take the gas out of me like it did for others. When I finally got to ring the bell that signaled my last radiation session, I felt really good.

This all happened in roughly over a year. I had to quit my job, and my girlfriend (who is now my wife) also quit hers to take care of me and go with me to all of my appointments. My family and friends always had my back. I also found a lot of support from the other patients getting treatment. Sometimes just talking was good medicine. One of my friends there was a 26-year-old girl who was so energetic, despite her condition. She passed away recently, and I reached out to her mom to let her know how much I appreciated her daughter. She made me stronger. I had an MRI not long after, and I know she was watching over me.

I have follow-up scans every three months, and so far they have all been clear. I believe in mindfulness and meditation, and I’m looking into finding a balance with modern medicine and healing the body with what nature can offer.

I’m a behavioral interventionist in an inner city school district and a school counselor. I’m also making music again. My band broke up right before I was diagnosed, and it was the ultimate gift to be able to do what I once did after cancer and do it even better. I wrote a song called “Meant to Live” under my stage name Zachary William. The music video is on YouTube, and it’s available to buy on iTunes, with 100 percent of the proceeds going to cancer research through organizations like Keep Punching. It’s my way of offering hope.

Watch the music video here.