In a conversation with Cancer Today,
Lipska talked about what her experiences
taught her about mental illness and the value
of scientific advances in extending her life.
C T: Why did you decide to write this book?
LIPSKA: It was so complex, what happened, that I wanted to explore it for
myself and for my family. And when I
started writing it, it turned out to be
extremely therapeutic. I loved dissecting the events and thinking about which
brain region [was affected]. How could
it happen? For me, as a neuroscientist, it
was also scientifically very interesting.
CT: In the book, you draw connections
between your tumor locations and specific areas of brain function. Did you set
out to write a scientific exploration?
LIPSKA: I think it’s my nature to approach
the whole story from the scientific point
of view, and I wanted to understand what
happened. To understand it, I had to lay out
how the brain works and which parts do
what. I lost frontal cortex function, and I
lost emotion. I lost empathy. I lost memory.
It was almost like I was an experimental
animal for myself. All the while, I was very
much myself—almost the worst version of
myself—which was also bizarre.
C T: Did you have any impulse to hide
some of the terrible moments you
describe in the book?
LIPSKA: No, I didn’t. I’m very straight-
forward, sometimes offending people
because I would rather say what is on
my mind. That’s what I do. If I don’t like
something, I say it. If I misbehave, and
this is known in my family, I don’t hide
it. I just say “Sorry, I did this” or “Not
sorry,” depending [on] what it is.
All this led to destigmatizing [mental
illness], because if I talk about it openly
and share it with other people, it doesn’t
have this taboo surrounding it. The same
is true for cancer, but it’s probably more
so for mental illness these days. I think
cancer carries less stigma nowadays than
mental illness. But in any illness, people
don’t want to be perceived as weak, and
illness is weakness in some people’s
minds, although it is not our fault that we
have cancer, mental illness or any other
illness. But with mental illness, people
just cannot communicate with society.
It’s terrible. This is what I experienced.
CT: What advice would you give to people
LIPSKA: What was extremely helpful for
me was researching and understanding the
process and then sharing the information. I
am an extrovert. Some people who are introverts may not agree with me, but for me, it
was very helpful to build a team and be surrounded by people who gave me advice and
supported me. Of course, my family helped
me most. Everybody had something to say
and we brainstormed together.
CT: What have you learned from
LIPSKA: As terrible as it was, it was
a gift. I feel richer because of this
experience. I know people’s suffering
and I know how other people can
respond to mental illness, so I know
the world a bit better.
I also really want to stress that, at
this phase in my life, I have benefited
from the advances in science so much.
I’ve been a brain cancer survivor now
for almost four years. But who knows
how much longer? Nobody knows
because we have just started to make
this progress. I think cancer research
is blooming now and it’s fantastic for
investigators working in the field, but
mental health research is behind. I
hope that it will catch up at some point.
The brain is a complicated organ. Many
people are surprised that mental illness
has anything to do with science. They
think mental faculty is God or spirit.
But it’s physical. What happened to me
is proof. —MARCI A. LANDSMANN
Editor’s Note: In August 2018, Lipska
learned that her brain tumors were growing
again. In September, she started an immunotherapy combination treatment.
TALK MORE ABOUT THE BOOK
Through March 20, we will be discussing The
Neuroscientist Who Lost Her Mind: My Tale of
Madness and Recovery in our online book group.