Blog No. 13 / Rocco the Tumor / by steve joseph

WARNING: graphic photos are featured in this blog.

I personally hate when friends post information and photos on Facebook telling of their latest operation. It simply turns my stomach. I have always had a calm and patient optimist view on life, until mid-July 2014 that is... when my right foot got lazy. 

After a week of consciously having to lift my foot to walk up stairs, I visited my doctor and set up an appointment with a neurologist the next day. He asked me to skip and hop across his office, which I found impossible to coordinate. Hell, I couldn't even walk a straight line. He immediately sent me for an MRI. 

Less than 12 hours later I was back in his office with a friend, nervously viewing the MRI below. It shows a non-cancerous meningioma tumor, the size of a fist living in my left brain. This was the most shocking conversation I have ever had in my life, and I was numb for days. I revealed this information to a few close friends, who gave me support and helped me get through this time when there were so many unanswered questions. 

*MRI 1 top.JPG

In retrospect I have learned much about tumors and how the body works. To see how the rest of my brain was pushed away to accommodate this huge lump was both frightening and fascinating at the same time. The only pain I experienced was in the complete opposite end of my body, in my right foot.

I had no time for a tumor. I was in the mist of packing 20 works for an exhibit in Iowa, getting ready to teach a full class at PRATT, and had been accepted for a month-long art residency in Virginia.

What I didn't have to worry about was my health coverage and expenses. Thanks to President Obama, and a huge amount of research choosing appropriate coverage, I was fully covered. And I was living in New York City home to some of the best hospitals in the world.

My best friend in LA helped me name the tumor. We chose "Rocco."

A few days later I was sitting in the offices of a top New York surgeon with two of my trusted buddies for support. Tumors start with an A-typical cell in your brain which grows. I was told my tumor may have been growing for over 10 years. It was large scale, and my skull would have to be sawed open then lifted, to remove Rocco. If the tumor was smaller radiation would have done the job, but Rocco was a big boy. 

Happily the surgeon agreed that I could wait a month for this operation, and we set a date  the day after flying back from a teaching commitment in Seattle. He said I was fit and would recover quickly. After limping around Seattle for a week I returned to New York and was ready for the operation. Three and a half days after the operation I was resting at a friend's apartment here in New York, being cared for and fed by more friends and family. Below is how I looked just after the surgery with a row of staples. The limping disappeared immediately after the surgery. 

Three weeks after surgery I was off to my visiting artist residency at the Torpedo Factory, in Virginia. I was still exhausted but it was good to be in a new environment. Below is an MRI without Rocco, and a photo showing how my scalp looked one month later.

Rocco left bits behind, which the surgeon could not safely remove. I am currently undergoing a series of radiation treatments to "zap" these bits and the healing cavity. Slowly my brain will adjust and grow into this new space. It is as if my brain is moving from a studio apartment to a one bedroom.


Through this experience I have learned how to ask for help, and have been rewarded with old and new friends offering major physical and emotional support.

In late November 2014, I installed two large scale commissions in a lovely apartment in Brooklyn. It was one of the most detailed and rewarding projects I have had to date. I know the work would have turned out differently if my tumor experience hadn't happened, it would have been less complicated. 

I have a new outlook on my work and life, and new clarity of vision in my art. My brain is literally growing, and I need to intentionally challenge myself to help it grow faster.

I look forward to sharing my thoughts and work with you here on my website, and I am very excited about upcoming projects, especially an exhibit here in New York in September 2015, which will feature between 30 and 40 works.