Carmen Rice is a survivor. Diagnosed with the deadliest form of brain cancer and told she would only have six months to live, Carmen is alive 18 years later. She shares her harrowing story in her book, co-written with Randy R. Harris, called “They Call Me the Miracle,” a nod to the nickname given to her by doctors.
Her story began in 2004, when she started getting headaches. She brushed it off, telling herself the headaches were probably a sign of stress and tiredness. While out to lunch with her husband Darrell at a restaurant they frequented, Carmen remarked to Darrell that the onions on her burger smelled funny. “And so it was, on a seemingly innocent, normal Saturday afternoon having a nothing-out-of-the-ordinary lunch with my husband that my life was turned upside-down,” Carmen wrote in her book.
Seizure Leads to Diagnosis
Everything went black. Carmen woke up in the hospital and was told she had a Grand Mal seizure, a potentially life-threatening medical emergency. She would later learn that the funny onion smell was related. Many seizure patients report odd or “phantom” smells right before a seizure strikes. As scary as it was, Carmen can’t help but be thankful that it happened. “That seizure that day, happening exactly as it did was the first little miraculous event on my journey of many miraculous events, which were to follow,” she wrote.
While her CAT scans at the emergency room appeared normal after her seizure, her doctors felt something was off. It’s uncommon for an otherwise healthy patient with no history of seizure to experience one of that magnitude and then receive a clear scan. Carmen was referred to a neurologist for more testing. She received the dire news the same evening of her appointment.
“You Have a Brain Tumor”
Tests revealed that Carmen had a brain tumor. She would need to have brain surgery quickly to reduce the risk of the tumor spreading. The bad news kept coming.
Just six days after having a seizure, Carmen was in the operating room undergoing brain surgery. A biopsy of her tumor revealed that it was stage 4 Glioblastoma Multiforme—the deadliest form of brain cancer. “I was told I had six months to survive. This was all so very frightening. I just could not believe this was happening to me.”
Carmen underwent aggressive radiation therapy to diminish the tumor and give her the best chance at survival. After radiation, Carmen underwent chemotherapy. In her book, Carmen shares the nitty gritty details of her intense chemo. “After only a few doses, it was quickly apparent that food was not going to be my friend. Even with anti-nausea pills, I threw up most mornings and never felt well.”
It was all worth it. In 2005, her doctor shared the good news. Her tumor was dormant and there was no new growth.
Over the next few years, Carmen was taking in every family gathering, lunch with her husband and busy days at work, just thankful to be alive. Against all odds, Carmen had survived, but her journey was far from over.
Carmen’s Second Brain Surgery
In 2008, at a routine MRI scan, the doctor shared with Carmen and Darrell the three words they prayed they wouldn’t hear, “There’s new growth.” Shocked by the news, her doctor continued. “Without treatment, you have six weeks to live. But like I said four years ago, if we move fast, with surgery and aggressive treatment, we might be able to extend your life some.”
Carmen underwent a second brain surgery, but this time was different. After surgery, Carmen’s speech was slurred and she was confused. The doctor told Darrell that the surgery caused trauma to the brain that would affect Carmen’s quality of life. She was unable to stand or walk on her own and was transported by ambulance to her new temporary home.
Coming to Encompass Health
Carmen was referred to inpatient rehabilitation at Encompass Health where she would undergo intensive therapy customized to her abilities and goals.
Her brain surgery left her dependent on others to perform daily tasks. In her book, she includes a long list of tasks she couldn’t do after surgery, including walking, feeding herself, getting dressed, reaching for items, brushing her teach and bathing. “It’s crazy to think how helpless I was at the time,” Carmen wrote.
In one of the first exercises she participated in at Encompass Health, Carmen was asked to place small pegs into the holes of a peg board. “I had quite a time getting those pesky little pegs in those tiny holes,” she wrote. Unknowingly, she neglected to put pegs in the holes on the left side of the board.
Carmen was experiencing a condition common after brain surgery called hemispatial neglect. It occurs when the one hemisphere of the brain is damaged and the other hemisphere experiences deficits. “Since my surgery was on my right side, I experienced left neglect,” she explained. “My brain simply didn’t consider the things on my left to be important, so it simply ignored them. Crazy, huh?” Carmen wrote.
Her therapists were experienced in exactly what Carmen was going through. “I needed a lot of help and care, and that is exactly what I received from my various therapists. No matter how badly I failed at a task, they never put me down or even reacted in surprise that I couldn’t do something.”
Therapists supported Carmen using a gait belt while Carmen walked the halls of the hospital, regaining strength and confidence. “My therapists were always so kind and caring and encouraging that I, for the most part, just focused on my progress and not on how embarrassing it was that someone was having to help me walk across the room.”
Carmen was discharged to return home after a week at Encompass Health. It’s been 15 years since, and she’s not forgotten how the therapists helped her achieve greater independence. In a recent interview, Carmen shared her gratitude. “To all the therapists, I could not have done it without Encompass Health,” she said.
In 2011, seven years after the seizure, Carmen was cleared by her doctors to stop chemotherapy. She was in remission. Over the years, Carmen has become the face of survivorship and hope, often called on to share her story for cancer support groups and research institutions. She’s worked with the National Foundation for Cancer Research and the American Cancer Society to advocate for cancer research. She also wrote a book to inspire others to keep their faith in bleak times. “My book is about my cancer journey in detail and how Encompass Health helped me overcome my many disabilities. I think that anyone who is going through the cancer journey or who has a health issue will find my book very inspiring.”