In early 2020, Verner Dixon began experiencing migraines for the first time.
The 39-year-old dad of three told TODAY Health he thought he was experiencing the painful headaches from trying to balance life, work and kids.
"I related it to stress," the San Diego-based realtor shared. "I have kids now, having a career (and I'm) on the computer and phone a lot more."
Up until this point, the only prior health issue Dixon experienced was a harmless lipoma on his neck, a fatty lump found most often between the skin and muscles, that was discovered in 2017.
"I just thought, I’ll take care of it later," he said, sharing that it was not urgent to him. "I know it looks gross, but it's not a big deal."
Because he believed his ergonomics were off, he began seeing a chiropractor for regular adjustments in late 2020 to combat the migraines and recurring neck pain. Dixon chalked it up to getting older, but the problems persisted.
"I was making sense of it," Dixon, who formerly worked as a personal trainer, explained, adding that rationalizing the situation made sense since he was otherwise very healthy. "Well if my neck is messed up, maybe there is a pinched nerve."
Dixon said that his wife, Michelle, noticed his hearing would be intermittent.
"Michelle would say things like 'Your hearing is off,' but the kids have been screaming, I'm cooking dinner and talking on the phone," Dixon said. "Between that and my head hurting and my neck hurting, Michelle would say 'What if it’s all connected?'"
Those words would haunt him.
In early March 2021, Michelle, 34, noticed the lipoma in Dixon's neck looked bigger, prompting him to make an appointment to finally have the benign lump removed.
In order for doctors to know where and how deep to cut, a CT scan was required.
Dixon was walking out the door to a real estate listing appointment when he received an email alert with his scan results
"The email said yes that’s a lipoma, but we also found evidence of a 3.2 centimeter mass, likely a vestibular schwannoma," he said, adding that the the email made it easier for him to copy and paste what that meant into a search engine. It was then the couple realized Dixon had a tumor leading from the inner ear to the brain.
For Michelle Dixon, the news was shattering.
"I couldn’t look at him without crying, because I was thinking 'I’m going to be a single mom of three children under five,'" she shared with TODAY. "You go down this rabbit hole of outcomes."
A vestibular schwannoma, often referred to as an acoustic neuroma, is a benign tumor that develops on the cochlear and vestibular nerves, which control hearing and balance.
According to the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders, approximately 1 in 100,000 individuals develops a vestibular schwannoma per year and most individuals develop symptoms between the ages of 30 and 60.
Dixon said the next steps include an auditory test to determine his hearing baseline, followed by surgery or removal.
"Thank god I had this lipoma, because I would have explained my headaches away until it was too late or too far gone," Dixon said.
Added Michelle, "Most people don't find out they have this until they've lost hearing or their face starts drooping."
The couple said Dixon's prognosis is good, but there is a risk of him becoming deaf in the affected ear.
"His tumor is pretty large and sizable in comparison to others," Michelle said. "He has very clear margins and it seems benign for now, but when they take it out, they will biopsy it."
While Dixon waits to meet with his audiologist and neurosurgeon to determine the timeline of treatment, he shared that facing his own mortality was a wake-up call.
"I was definitely like 'Oh that's not going to be me, I'm not going to have a brain tumor,'" he said. "But no one is immune or invincible."
Michelle reiterated that she is thankful she continued to push her husband to see a doctor and encouraged anyone else suffering from chronic symptoms to connect the pieces.
"Now that we know, it’s like 'Oh my gosh, of course! I’ve known you for almost ten years. You’ve never had neck pain and headaches.' Why at 39 should we say, 'Oh, it's because you’re getting older?' Keep questioning, keep reaching out (and) keep trying to find an answer," she said.
The couple agreed that after Dixon's surgery, they are looking forward to a boring year.
"2019 we lost a baby, 2020 we’re in a pandemic, 2021 Verner has a brain tumor," Michelle shared. "Maybe 2022 will be quiet and great."