How brain cancer gave a neuroscientist insight into mental illness

After a career studying brains, neuroscientist Barbara K. Lipska developed a whole new understanding of mental illness when brain cancer caused her to lose her mind.

'I considered dying but I never thought that I would lose my mind,' said Barbara K. Lipska

Prominent neuroscientist Barbara K. Lipska describes her 'descent into madness' - a time that lasted two months - and her recovery back to reality in her new book. (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt/submitted by Barbara K. Lipska)
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For her entire career, neuroscientist Barbara K. Lipska studied what made people lose their minds. Then, one day — it happened to her.

"I was working but strangely, frighteningly, my hand — it disappeared," Lipska told The Current's Anna Maria Tremonti. When she put her hand in the lower-right side of her vision, it "disappeared as if cut off at the wrist."

"I put my head on my desk and I was terrified," she said.

Lipska survived cancer twice in preceding years. The seasoned triathlete was in peak physical health. But when she lost part of her sight, Lipska suspected what was wrong.

A brain scan confirmed she had three melanoma brain tumours. One of the tumours was bleeding in the left visual cortex. As a neuroscientist, she knew her prognosis was grim.

A scan of Barbara K Lipska's brain shows tumours and extensive swelling. (Submitted by Barbara K. Lipska )

An absent mind

"I considered dying but I never thought that I would lose my mind," Lipska said, author of The Neuroscientist Who Lost Her Mind: My Tale of Madness and Recovery.

Lipska had surgery to remove the tumours and then radiation. After treatment, Lipska was accepted into a clinical trial for immunotherapy to help fight the cancer.  About a month into the trial, she recalls the beginning of her break from reality.

"I started to be really angry. I was lashing out at everybody around me: my loving husband, my loving son and daughter and, what was the most curious, at my beloved grandsons," Lipska told Tremonti.

To observe a person depart with the mind but physical body being still there, it's frightening.- Barbara K. Lipska

Strange episodes continued to happen. At one point, Lipska became paranoid that the pest exterminator was trying to poison her with chemicals. Lipska's family and friends excused her odd behaviour as stress.

She lost her memory, getting lost in her neighbourhood and forgetting things that happened just moments before. But there was a bigger loss for Lipska.

"I lost emotion and empathy. I didn't see that my husband had tears in his eyes when he looked at me and talked to me and I didn't connect with him," she recalled.

"I was absent, looked past him. I was not his loving wife. I changed dramatically."

Regaining sanity

Eventually Lipska's family convinced her to get an MRI that detected new tumours. In addition to radiation, she took steroids to prevent swelling in her brain.

Moments of clarity began to seep into her mind and some of her memories returned. "It was as if through my broken brain the lights started getting in," Lipska said.

Lipska continues to participate in triathlons. In this photo, she poses next to her daughter before completing the swim portion of the Quassy triathlon on June 3, 2018. (Submitted by Barbara K. Lipska)

"But it was terrifying to realize how I was hurting my family and everybody around me."

Lipska is in remission, but she's aware there is no cure for melanoma or the effects the cancer could have on her brain again. She says her experience has given her a great understanding of mental illness beyond her years as a neuroscientist.

"I know how terrifying it is to the patient but also, and probably mainly, to the family and the loved ones. To observe a person depart with the mind but physical body being still there, it's frightening."

Listen to the full conversation near the top of this page.


This segment was produced by The Current's Willow Smith.

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