Alison Goodrum is a milliner, making handmade hats using traditional techniques. She is also a brain tumour survivor. In support of Hats for Headway Day, Alison has shared her story with us... and her beautiful hats!
Just like one of those fuzzy-looking ‘magic eye’ puzzles, when the Consultant told me I had a brain tumour back in December 2018, a seemingly random jumble of shapes and colours – or, in my case, of signs and symptoms – snapped into sharp focus. The crashing headaches from which I had suffered all my adult life finally made sense, especially when coupled with the more recent onset of unexplained vertigo, leg pain and even vomiting.
It may appear crass to say that my diagnosis was a welcome relief but, for me, discovering there was a clear reason for feeling so achingly awful was a powerful moment of revelation.
I was 44 years old with an established career as a university professor when I was diagnosed with a rare form of brain tumour known as Acoustic Neuroma (AN). This type of tumour is low grade and therefore slow growing, and, at about 40mm, my own tumour had most probably been rattling around in my head, undiscovered, for a good many years. Acoustic Neuroma is so called because it wraps around the eighth cranial nerve, the nerve responsible for hearing but also for balance. With hindsight, I now realise I had shrugged off the effect of this for years, rationalising my increasing wobbliness and discomfort with stairs, slopes and busy, moving, traffic as little more than troublesome personal foibles.
After my diagnosis, I had a four month-long wait for surgery at Addenbrooke’s hospital in Cambridge. This proved to be the ultimate test of nerve. It was around this time that I remember phoning the Headway helpline. It was just a few minutes before 5pm on a particularly bleak and wintery Friday afternoon. I thought it highly likely that no one would be around to answer my call. But I was wrong.
Headway was there for me, in every sense. I was given precious time, kind words, excellent advice, as well as details of the charity’s Brain Tumour Injury ID card, which I now carry constantly as a tremendous source of reassurance.
On 25th April 2019, I underwent 12 hour-long brain surgery at Addenbrooke’s. My tumour was resected by the magnificently termed translabyrinthine approach. ANs are awkwardly positioned in the brain, so much so that getting to the site means sacrificing the workings of the inner ear on the side of the tumour.
One of the most significant outcomes of the operation is permanent, unilateral, hearing loss. My left ear is now purely ornamental. Due to the skill of my surgical and nursing team, to whom I am indebted, my operation was declared successful and went as well as anyone could ever have hoped. Astonishingly, I was discharged in less than 48 hours, with low odds of my tumour returning.
I consider myself to be one of the lucky ones.
Both my diagnosis and my convalescence brought forth unanticipated consequences. Whilst there have been significant losses, disappointments and trauma along the way, there have also been some surprising gains: more time spent with family, especially my long suffering parents who shouldered an enormous part of the responsibility for my care; developing a new skill in the form of lip reading, possibly the best superpower short of invisibility; and, crucially, the opportunity to grow my creative interests, specifically in the form of hat-making and millinery, from mere hobby to serious concern.
My illness forced me to switch from a full- to part-time role at my university and, with that, fresh opportunities knocked. For the first time ever, I had space in my working week to spend away from my academic pursuits. This scenario gave rise to ‘Goodrum & Merryweather’, my handmade millinery studio. The craft of millinery, and my development as a milliner, has been an exceptionally important part of my convalescence. A meditative practice. A creative act. A silver lining. The list goes on. Making a hat is an absorbing, labour-intensive, process involving painstaking working-by-hand.
Taking time is one of its core principles. Slow and steady, with occasional flashes of inspiration; very much like my own recovery.
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