05 May Shrinkage
Bryan Bishop or “Bald Bryan” as he’s known to listeners of The Adam Carolla Show, has long been the sound-effects mastermind and super sharp sidekick to Adam Carolla on their popular radio show, and their widely downloaded podcast. In his debut memoir, SHRINKAGE: Manhood, Marriage, and the Tumor That Tried to Kill Me, Bryan reveals the candid, humorous, uplifting story of how an “inconvenient tumor” changed his life. Here is an excerpt from the book:
CHAPTER 4: Signs of Trouble or, “Christie, I’m Sick”
For the first few months, whenever I told anyone that I had been diagnosed with a brain tumor, their first question would invariably be, “How did you know?” or “What were your first symptoms?” I suspect they were really asking, “Holy crap, could this be happening to me and I don’t even know it?!” But I answered their questions anyway; I told them it came on subtlety. In late 2008, I was working for the Adam Carolla Show, which at that point was a syndicated morning radio show. The show started live at 6:00 a.m., which meant I usually got there a little before five thirty.
I had a food routine for the mornings: on the drive to the studio (around 5:15 a.m.), I had a granola bar out of a box I kept behind my front seat. This was my “breakfast.” (Are you jealous of the glamorous morning-radio lifestyle now, kids?) By the time the show was half-over (around 8:00 a.m.), I’d need a snack. So I kept a box of Clif Bars in my “office” (really an office belonging to two other guys that I was allowed to have a desk drawer in…yep, some guys have all the luck). At a certain point, I began to feel the tiniest bit of numbness on the right side of my lips whenever I would eat the Clif Bar, at which I thought, “Aw crap, am I allergic to Clif Bars now?” One day, they announced a recall of Clif Bars because of some tainted ingredient. I thought maybe I had gotten a bad batch. I even looked it up on the Internet, but no dice. My bars were not the ones recalled. I chalked it up to being tired. And the truth was, I was tired. So it was easily explained away.
That’s how it was for all of my symptoms. There was always an explanation. For example, another routine I had was going to the gym every day after work. The gym was located across the street from the radio station, and we got a corporate discount. Plus my work day was usually over by ten thirty, so hitting the gym at 11:00 a.m. was an ideal time. It was usually pretty empty.
Occasionally, I’d jump rope at the gym. One day, I was having a ton of trouble clearing the rope whenever I tried to jump. The rope would keep catching on my left foot. Over and over I’d only be able to get about four or five clean jumps in before I’d step on the rope. Eventually, I got frustrated and moved onto the rowing machine. But I remember thinking, “Hm, that was weird.” Another time, I was getting a private training session, which included a running portion on the treadmill. Only I kept stepping off the running surface and had to grab the bars and steady myself. The trainer awkwardly said something to the effect of, “Um, why don’t we move on to the medicine ball.” But again, I was concerned.
You might be saying, “How could you not notice these warning signs?!” First of all, stop talking out loud; this is a book. People are going to stare. Second, all of this would always happen at the end of one of my workouts, which I explained to myself as, “Oh, I’m just working out too hard” or “I’m not drinking enough water at the gym.” To wit, on most days, I would hit either the sauna or the steam room after I was done in the gym. It got to the point where I was getting light headed after exiting the heat and returning to normal temperatures. More than once I had to steady myself walking to the showers. But again, this was easily explained. I was just spending too much time in the sauna, I told myself. It was a reasonable explanation.
The thing that tipped me off the most was what happened when I would drink. Early on, I would get a little clumsy when I would drink. Once, Christie and I were having dinner at a friend’s house when a rousing game of Rock Band broke out. I was shredding a particularly wild guitar solo (probably Motorhead’s “Ace of Spades”) when I took one false step backwards and fell into their fireplace. Luckily it wasn’t lit, and we all had a good drunken laugh over it. Another time, we were visiting my parents for Christmas, and after a couple of cocktails, we adjourned to the living room to open presents. I went to step over a pile of gifts and promptly ended up on my ass on the floor. Everyone had a good laugh and said, “Ha, ha, look how drunk Bryan is!” Only I wasn’t that drunk.
It was around this time that I started to quietly look for a neurologist. All of these “little” symptoms had me freaked out. Plus the numbness in my lips had now spread to other parts of my face and scalp. I looked up my symptoms on WebMD.com and every possible diagnosis came back brain-related: stroke, TIA (transient ischemic attack; basically a mini-stroke), or multiple sclerosis. In the back of my mind, my worst fear was that I had the early symptoms of ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s disease. Although the symptoms weren’t a total match, I was still fearful. A few months earlier, an older cousin of mine had been diagnosed with ALS. He was a newlywed in his late thirties, and his diagnosis had hit my family pretty hard. ALS is, in my opinion, the cruelest disease. At least with cancer, there’s a glimmer of hope. You can come up with a game plan and you can fight. ALS is terminal. In all cases. Nobody has ever beaten ALS. I don’t say this to be callous or melodramatic; indeed, I saw its effects up close. Worst of all, it affects only the body, so as people become progressively and inevitably more paralyzed, they are keenly aware of everything that is happening to them. Think about that: you are 100 percent aware of your own paralysis. The pall of his diagnosis and prognosis – basically, certain death – still hung over my entire extended family. While ALS isn’t known to be hereditary, it was an obvious concern. So I started researching neurologists online. And by researching, I mean “looking under neurologists on my health insurer’s Web site.”
One Friday, a few weeks later (April 10, 2009), I went with Christie to her office. It was her last day; she’d been laid off earlier that week – a victim of the struggling economy. She had to drop off her work laptop, and afterward, we headed to my friends Kyle and Catie’s house for a few beers in the afternoon. This was pretty light drinking – two or three Bud Lights over the course of a few hours. Despite the fact that I’d only had a couple of light beers, I was hammered. When I got up off the couch to use the restroom, I promptly fell over. But I had drunk the same amount as everyone else and they were all fine. We decided to head out to get something to eat just a few blocks away, but I was a mess. Christie had to help me walk down the street. Once we got there, I tried to engage everyone in normal conversation, but I couldn’t get the words out properly. Frustrated, I shut down and focused on eating my pulled-pork sandwich with a fork (or trying to, at least). Halfway into dinner, our buddy Sean showed up straight from work. After a few minutes he looked around the table and said, pointing at everyone else, “You’re sober, you’re sober, and you’re sober.” Then, pointing at me: “How’d you get so drunk?” Everyone laughed – “Ha ha, Bryan’s so drunk!” But again, I hadn’t drunk that much. Certainly not enough to warrant the state I was in.
Christie drove us home (obviously). When we got home, I had “sobered up,” and we were both lying on the couch, commiserating about our unemployment. I knew the time had come to tell her that something was up with me, healthwise. But how? Sugarcoat it? Undersell it? Even I didn’t know what was wrong with me. Eventually, I just settled on the direct approach.
“Christie, something’s wrong. I’m sick.” She sat up. “What do you mean ‘sick’?”
I explained my symptoms. I explained how I really wasn’t that drunk tonight. I explained everything.
“How long have you had these symptoms?” she asked.
“I’m not sure. They’re all pretty subtle. The earliest I can remember is around Christmas.”
“Christmas?!” she shouted.
“It’s ok, I’ve been doing some research online.” I shared what I’d found online. Big mistake. Apparently hearing that your thirty-year-old fiancé may have MS or may have suffered a stroke is alarming to some people.
“Don’t worry, I’ve already made an appointment with a neurologist,” I said proudly.
“Thank God. When is it?”
“April twenty-ninth.” Almost three weeks later.
What happened next… Look, it’s not important how angry Christie got. The point is that, yes, she was angry. She immediately called Hutch—Dr. Bill Hutchinson, a family friend. Dr. Hutchinson was a top surgeon at St John’s medical center in nearby Santa Monica. Surely he would know someone he could refer us to who specialized in neurology. Sure enough, Hutch knew someone: a kindly old neurologist whom I’ll call Dr. Schwartz. He had been around for a few years, Bill said, but he was a good doctor and well respected. He offered to call Schwartz’s office in the morning and personally make an appointment for us. We accepted thankfully.
“Thank God for Hutch,” Christie said. “Yeah,” I sighed.
Our appointment with Dr. Schwartz was scheduled for two days later. Leo J. Schwartz is old-school. Literally. He got his MD from the University of Kentucky in 1964. For historical perspective, that’s two years before Pat Riley (yes, the same Pat Riley who coached Magic Johnson’s Lakers in the 1980s) was an all-American at Kentucky under Adolph Rupp. Schwartz is what NBA announcers would refer to as “a cagey veteran.” But he certainly didn’t lack for experience. His office was small – tiny, in fact – with just him and his one (equally old-school) secretary, who typed up all of his medical notes on a manual typewriter. That’s how you know someone’s old-school: they don’t have a receptionist, they have a secretary. Let me tell you, when you’re nervous upon entering a doctor’s office, the staccato clicking-and-clacking of a manual typewriter in the background will put you right at ease.
Dr. Schwartz began with (what I would later realize is) the standard barrage of first-time questions for a patient: How old was I? Was I a smoker? And most important, how long have I been having these symptoms?
He put me through a battery of simple tests: I followed his pen with my eyes, I touched my nose, I lifted my leg while he tried to hold it down. Finally, he asked me to walk across the room, heel-to-toe. I stumbled and lost my balance on the second step. He said, “Thank you, that’s enough,” and began writing in his notes. Christie broached the elephant in the room (for us, anyway).
“Doctor, Bryan has a family history of ALS. His cousin was just diagnosed. Is there any chance…?” She couldn’t even get out the words.
“No. This is not ALS,” he assured us. “I think you have multiple sclerosis.”
This was probably the first time in history a young couple were relieved to learn that one of them might have MS. MS is a degenerative disease where the lining (myelin) of the nerves in your brain wears away (demyelination), and you have strokelike symptoms similar to mine. But with medication, an MS patient can potentially live a seminormal life, depending on what type of MS he or she has (there are four kinds, we learned through our research). People live with MS. People don’t live with ALS.
“Is there anything else it could be?” I asked. “We found a few other possibilities online. TIA, stroke…”
“Not really.” He told us he wanted me to get an MRI right away. The scan would tell him exactly what was wrong in my brain, and how far the demyelination had gotten. Then, he said, he would put me on a steady dose of steroids and go from there.
The MRI went smoothly. I remember little about it, other than thinking, “Thank Christ, finally some tests!” I was probably glad to know the doctor had an idea of what the hell was wrong with me. Christie (who came to every appointment with me) and I left the building hand in hand. Her layoff had just taken effect. We were young, engaged, and unemployed, and had recently been informed that one of us had a potentially life-threatening illness. So we did what anyone in our situation would do.
We drove to Vegas.
We needed to blow off some steam; to sit by the pool and relax and contemplate a future that might or might not include a debilitating disease. We had no income, but because certain hotels considered me a gambling “enthusiast,” we were comped a room at Treasure Island. We spent the whole first day at the pool, where I got another reminder that my physical abilities were being compromised. When I went to get out of the pool, I would forgo the stairs and just lift myself onto the edge of the pool and get out that way. Only I couldn’t lift my left leg high enough to clear the concrete lip of the pool, so I scraped and bruised my leg each time getting out. By the end of the weekend, my left shin was so covered in cuts and discolorations, it looked like a Rorschach test.
Christie’s younger brother, Christopher, had nothing to do that weekend, and we had a free room, so we invited him to drive out to join us for a night. Our ulterior motive was to tell him the news about my impending diagnosis. He would be a test case, we figured, of how our family and friends might react to the news. The night he arrived, we sat him down in the room and told him we had some serious news.
“Bryan hasn’t been feeling well lately,” Christie explained. “We’ve seen a doctor and taken some tests, and it look like Bryan may have MS.” We paused for Chris’s reaction.
“Okay,” he shrugged.
We explained that, best-case scenario, I’d be on medication for the rest of my life to try to control the symptoms. We asked him if he had any questions or concerns.
“Not really. You look fine, and if they’re going to put you on medication, then…” he trailed off. “What are you gonna do?” he asked rhetorically.
Christie and I looked at each other: What were we gonna do? Christopher had the right reaction; there’s not much you can do, outside of the obvious, so why worry? We laughed at his nonreaction to our “news,” then we headed out to dinner.
We drove home from Vegas the next day. A short time later, we got a call from Dr. Schwartz; he had seen the results of my MRI. “You don’t have MS,” he told me. “But I need to see you in my office first thing tomorrow morning.”
Our initial reaction was “Yay, Bryan doesn’t have MS!”—followed by “Wait, why does the doctor need to see us right away?” We were more confused than worried.
To read more, the book is available here.
From Shrinkage: Manhood, Marriage and the Tumor that Tried to Kill Me by Bryan Bishop, on sale April 29, 2014, from Thomas Dunne Books, an imprint of St. Martin’s Press, LLC. Copyright © 2014 by the author and reprinted by permission of St. Martin’s Press, LLC.