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‘ I need to enjoy today, this week and next month.’ Brain tumor survivor races on

On Aug. 25, Lisa Joerling will head to Corporate Woods to run Kansas City’s 16th annual Head for the Cure 5K.
On Aug. 25, Lisa Joerling will head to Corporate Woods to run Kansas City’s 16th annual Head for the Cure 5K. Special to The Star

On Aug. 25, Lisa Joerling will head to Corporate Woods to run Kansas City’s 16th annual Head for the Cure 5K. An ambassador for the nonprofit dedicated to raising awareness about brain disease, this avid runner is also a brain tumor survivor.

Diagnosed six years ago, Joerling’s journey has been arduous.

In 2013, her life mirrored that of many other college students. The future looked bright for the 19-year-old Kansas State education major. But on July 3 that year, Joerling’s life took a turn.

“I woke up that morning and the entire right side of my body, from head to foot, was numb,” she said.

A trip to the emergency room with her mother, Linda, led to an admission to ICU that evening. A biopsy followed, which revealed Joerling had a Ganglioglioma brain tumor.

“The tumor was the size of a golf ball and located on the motor strip that affected my right hand,” she said. The following week, she had a procedure to remove the tumor. She was awake for the surgery, so they could save the function of her right hand.

“In a span of 13 days, I was diagnosed, had the biopsy, surgery and half a dozen MRIs.”

Since the diagnosis, Joerling has survived the challenges that have redefined how she views and lives her life.

During the past six years, her symptoms have recurred daily, including a partial loss of the use of her hand and a diagnosis of epilepsy related to the tumor. She has undergone tests and treatment, while continuing to search for doctors who can address her escalating condition.

“The tumor is incurable and surgery is not an option, because it’s located deep in my brain,” she said. “It will be a management thing for the rest of my life.”

Through the obstacles and unknowns, she’s persisted in pursuing her goals. Six weeks after the first surgery in 2013, Joerling was back in classes at K-State.

“During school, I went through occupational therapy and had to relearn how to use my right hand and do things like hold a fork and use a pencil,” she said.

Despite ongoing medical care, Joerling graduated and fulfilled her dream. Today, she teaches fourth grade at Apache Elementary in Overland Park and will begin a master’s program in instructional technology this fall.

Though her schedule is full, Joerling’s medical condition also requires ongoing vigilance and treatment.

“2019 has been harder than past years,” she said. “Getting the seizures under control and getting rid of the medicine’s side effects has been hard. This year has reiterated that the unknowns will always be there going forward, and I have to be honest and upfront about the difficulties. It’s a lot of pressure to watch my health all the time and deal with the anxiety that comes with that.

“But, this year I’ve become more OK with accepting the fact that I need to enjoy today, this week and next month — and not think years and years out. Sometimes, I wish I could go back to a couple of days before I found out about the tumor, because things were very different. I wouldn’t trade life before for life now, but that innocence is kind of gone.”

Joerling’s parents’ lives have also changed.

“From the moment Lisa was diagnosed, our innocence of a normal life was gone,” said Linda Joerling. “You realize after experiencing this how treasured time is. It’s so hard for a mom to see her child go through something so serious that she can’t fix—and it’s hard not knowing Lisa’s future.”

Lisa’s father, Kevin Joerling, also faces the uncertainties of his daughter’s illness.

“Lisa’s positive outlook has certainly has helped me cope with the unknown future,” he said. ‘Living through her illness and constant worry that her tumor may return, I’ve made a concerted effort to embrace the time I spend with her. Even simple things like going to Walmart together or cleaning her car, I never take for granted anymore.”

Proactive about her medical care out of necessity, Joerling also stays steadfast about physical fitness. She works out at a gym four or five times a week and competes in more than a dozen 5K races each year.

“For six years, I’ve been on a quest to heal from this,” she said. “Working out has been the main thing because it helps both my emotional and physical health.”

Joerling’s commitment to her physical health is paralleled by her dedication to the Head for the Cure organization.

“Head for the Cure is so many things. It is hope and inspiration and gives patients and survivors a voice,” she said. “Being an ambassador has helped the healing process along. It’s therapeutic to help others, and to be part of a community helping others.

“Life today is fulfilling and lived for every moment. It’s so important to me to make a difference and do something meaningful because every day counts.”