Few diagnoses could be more terrifying than that of a brain tumour. Susan Wyndham tells us that brain cancer is the ninth most common cancer in adults and, after leukaemia, the most common in children. I’ve lost too many friends to cancers of the brain: a schoolfriend, tragically young, in her early teens, and more recently, John Foyster and Peter McNamara, both valued members of the Australian science fiction community.
In Life in His Hands, Wyndham tells the story of two men: a young, talented pianist, Aaron McMillan, and the controversial Sydney-based neurosurgeon, Charlie Teo, who operated on him. McMillan had ignored his own severe headaches for months, thinking he just needed a holiday. He was fortunate that a GP he saw for an unrelated eye infection asked enough questions to suspect a serious problem – and that she then sent him to Teo.
McMillan turned out to have a rare type of brain tumour that grows from the membrane around the brain, a hemangiopericytoma. It was huge, more like an orange than a pea, and situated in his right occipital lobe, the area that processes visual information and recognises shapes and colours. Most surgeons would have considered it inoperable, but Teo has a reputation for taking on difficult tumours.
Wyndham is an experienced journalist; she’s been editor of Good Weekend magazine, a correspondent for The Australian newspaper and literary editor of the Sydney Morning Herald. She missed the episode of the ABC’s Australian Story that featured McMillan’s risky brain surgery, but was intrigued by him when they met at a formal dinner in 2002, and later talked with Teo while researching McMillan. Several articles later, Wyndham’s fascination with and admiration for the two highly skilled and ambitious men grew to form this book.
The vivid descriptions of actual brain surgery and the tense post-operative wait, of doctors looking at scans of the brain and pointing out shapes that shouldn’t be there, will seem familiar to regular viewers of surgical reality TV shows. Just as on those shows, there are parts not recommended for the squeamish: drilling through the skull, cauterising blood vessels in the brain, and so on.