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For months, Maria Menounos thought she was just battling overwhelming stress. It turned out to be so much more than that.
As she was taking care of her mother, who was diagnosed with brain cancer in 2016, she began noticing her own troubling symptoms. An MRI early last year revealed a golf-ball size tumor pressing on her trigeminal nerve, which provides sensation to the face and controls some of its muscles.
Menounos underwent an almost eight-hour surgery to have the benign meningioma removed on June 8, 2017 — her 39th birthday. Almost a year later, she’s recovering well, she said.
“I feel good. There are little things, but nothing major,” Menounos told TODAY. “The prognosis is great… (my doctor) said the chances of this ever coming back are 6 percent, it’s like nothing. We’re good.”
May is Brain Tumor Awareness Month, with doctors warning that the condition can strike anyone. Like the overwhelming majority of brain tumors, Menounos’ growth was a random event, completely unrelated to her mother’s cancer.
The former E! News co-anchor, who now hosts the SiriusXM show “Conversations with Maria Menounos” and is the co-founder of AfterBuzz TV, shared what the ordeal was like and the lessons learned from her medical journey. This interview was edited for length and clarity.
When did you notice something was wrong?
Menounos: For a long time, probably for two years before, I was exhausted and I didn’t know why. Everyone told me it was because I worked so hard. Somehow, it didn’t really sit right with me, but you have no other explanation for it — that’s what you kind of go with.
"You can come out of this OK. There is hope."
The summer before, I remember feeling like my whole body was shutting down. I didn’t know what was wrong with me. I was just a mess. In some way, nothing was working right. Now I look back and my body was screaming at me. There were two moments where I had to go home from work, which is so unlike me. My body was trying to send me signals and I was ignoring them because I was too busy.
What were your symptoms?
Menounos: I was getting these really terrible headaches every day and I’d get very lightheaded when I’d get up off the couch. My vision was getting blurry.
My speech would slur at some point and that’s when I would joke, “Oh, that’s my stupid brain tumor again” — joking, having no idea.
I just thought I was under a lot of pressure because I was taking care of my mom and I was stressed and overwhelmed trying to keep everything together. I never would have imagined in a million years that I had a brain tumor as well.
How did you get diagnosed?
Menounos: In February 2017, I scheduled a doctor’s appointment because my ear was hurting. He told me my ear was perfectly fine and then asked, “What are your other symptoms?” And as I started to rattle them off, I had my “aha” moment and said, “I think I have a brain tumor like my mom. You’re going to think I’m crazy.” He said, “I don’t think you’re crazy.”
What was your recovery like after surgery?
Menounos: It takes time for the body to recover when you’re playing with these nerves and trying to get a tumor to detach from them. It really affected my balance a lot and I had a lot of difficulty with my eyes — I was seeing double and triple. I needed a walker for a long time for stability.
The back of my head, where I had surgery, everything is healing and coming together, so I have these awkward — almost like my skull is scrunching together — type of feelings. It’s strange.
What lessons would you like to share?
Menounos: The biggest thing is when your body is making noises, go to the doctor — just like when your car makes noises, you take it to the mechanic. Don’t stop searching for the answers because if you know something is off, then something is off.
Find the right doctor who is going to help you investigate it properly. People get told, “It’s nothing, you’re just tired and stressed” or “You’re being paranoid.” I was lucky to have a doctor who instantly realized that we needed to take action and take it seriously.
Keep a pain journal. It’s so important to keep track of symptoms so that when you see your doctor, you can actually look back and remember things. Take notes and notice any patters.
One of the messages I always try to leave people with is: You can come out of this OK. There is hope. I like to be a walking example of going through something like this with positivity and humor and knowing that when you do, it lessens a lot of the pain. Hope is so important.
A simpler lifestyle is something to aspire to — don't over-complicate life. Going against your grain just to make money or whatever — it’s not going to be good in the long run. We need to set boundaries on cell phones, email and the demands of everybody else.
I’ve learned a lot and changed my whole perspective on life. I want to be happy and healthy and put that all first. Whatever comes from there, I’m going to be OK with.