Feature | A fried egg in space

In January 2021, one day after thousands of Trump supporters stormed the US Capitol, I underwent a craniotomy far from home in Loveland, Colorado to remove a low-grade tumour from the front left of my brain. In 2016 the World Health Organization stopped calling such tumours ‘benign’ as, when it comes to the brain, anything where it should not be cannot be classed as benign. Generally, benign in medical terms means it is not invasive. It has not (yet) spread into healthy tissue. It is not considered immediately dangerous or harmful, and if it grows then it will grow very slowly. At that point, anyway.

Most low-grade brain tumours are astrocytomas—named for the starlike cells they spring from. Astronomers and neuroscientists recently collaborated on a project where they noted the echoes in the brain of the starry structures of galaxies—or perhaps the echoes in galaxies of our brains. Our neural networks parallel the movements and networks of the universe. My tumour, however, is a cousin of the astrocytoma and has cells that look—under a microscope—like fried eggs, which is slightly less romantic. Such tumours only make up roughly four per cent of primary brain tumours diagnosed. A fried egg floating around in the galaxy of my brain does not reconcile in my thoughts. A blurry egg on the MRI where it should not be, oozing from the grey matter into white matter. I call it Ricky. ‘Tumour’ makes me think of ‘turmeric’, which makes me think of ‘Ricky’.

Names and what they hide or what they reveal are important. For example, what I have learned in my brief time living in Colorado, on the lands of the Ute, Cheyenne, Arapaho and Eastern Shoshone peoples, is that terms like ‘open space’ or ‘refuge’ often name areas once used for chemical waste disposal or nuclear activities. These areas are considered too dangerous to build housing on, but ‘benign’ enough for recreation and animals—at least that is the going narrative. Not immediately harmful perhaps, but what about their water contamination and the housing projects proliferating downwind? What about the cancers that sprout in their former workers, or in children who live just a little bit too close? Above it all, the Rocky Mountains rise, looking impossible to pass.

Just over the highway from where we live is the Rocky Flats National Wildlife Refuge—about a thirteen-minute drive. We only moved to Colorado in August 2020, just for a year so that I could take up a postdoctoral position. We could not travel to look at any apartments before my work started, due to Covid-19, and our apartment complex dumped in the middle of farmland seemed to be the only available option.  From 1952 to 1992, the Rocky Flats Plant manufactured nuclear weapons. The FBI raided the plant in 1989 after numerous environmental law violations. Since then, residents downwind of the area have consistently tried to document hazards associated with the plant. Numerous workers at the plant, as well as people living nearby, have high occurrences of brain tumours that often start out slow-growing but almost inevitably transform into high-grade, fast-growing and deadly tumours if they are allowed to progress. Meanwhile, people still hike across the Flats, and ride their bikes.

My partner works at an animal-care facility, closer to the Flats. He and a student in my class tell me of the dogs that have steep cancer rates. A local veterinarian linked these rates to the dogs’ frequent playtimes in Westminster Dog Park, downwind. Environmental officials have measured the levels of nuclear material that waft across that area and sink in its watery sites. They say it should not be enough to cause harm.

My partner and I have not lived in Colorado long enough to connect my brain tumour to the plant, or to any of the other nuclear or chemical waste sites in this state. It is just bad luck (or, perhaps, good) that I have landed in an area that is very familiar with brain tumours.

New Zealand is my home country, but I grew up in West Papua. After my tumour was diagnosed, my family and I wracked our brains for how it came to be. I came across an article about Joe Biden’s son, Beau, and his deadly glioblastoma tumour. Glioblastomas are the worst kind of brain tumour you can ever have. There is no cure and they often transform from pre-existing ‘benign’ astrocytomas. Biden blames his son’s tumour on the US’s burn pits in the Middle East—places where the military burn their waste and the contaminants spread over the soldiers’ clothes, skin, machines. Of course, the military’s radiation use could also be a factor. I remembered living on the coast in Papua, on a hill that housed US troops during World War Two, where the black smoke of American missionaries burning their rubbish in open pits spread through our house frequently. Or I think of all the times people fogged DDT to kill mosquitoes around our house and other places where we lived. My surgeon says that we will probably never know what caused this tumour—that it could be caused by absolutely nothing at all. An accident of bad luck or genetics, of one cell transforming and multiplying all wrong. But, still, latching on to any potential answer offers some comfort.

When my neurologist first suggested an MRI to investigate my migraines, I thought she was overreacting and that I could not afford it, even with the relatively decent health insurance that the university offered me. My partner reasoned that it was better to know than to not know, though, and that the scan’s results might put me at ease.

The MRI tube was much smaller and louder than I ever imagined it would be. Nothing like they look on Grey’s Anatomy. I closed my eyes and imagined that my deceased grandfather was with me. He would not mind it. The radiologist was kind, almost too kind, on my way out. I should have known something was off.

The next day I received the results in my health app. I did not comprehend them at first. I was already on the phone to my mum in New Zealand when I got the notification. Mum was sitting in a camp chair, watching my dad fish for trout. We were laughing about something else, I can never remember what, but then I saw the results. I read them out to her: ‘“Most likely low-grade neoplasm.” What do you think that means? What do they mean by neoplasm?’ As a fairly anxiety-prone person, I have imagined encountering various illnesses over the course of my life. But never a mass in my brain.

What followed was an avalanche of tests in seven different Colorado hospitals and medical centres to rule out various diagnoses, but the end result came right back to ‘neoplasm’: a favourite term that doctors use instead of ‘tumour’. The good news, my surgeon informed me, is that low-grade means finding Ricky at this stage is almost a win. We can remove him so that he should not kill me in my forties. It can be managed. For a time. I am young and should heal quickly. Once removal is achieved, I should go on with my life, notwithstanding MRI scans every six months.


During our first and only summer in Colorado, the whole landscape was marked by fires. There was constant haze. One hot day in September the sky was dark orange, and ash coated our car. I went on a walk near our apartment, where there is a farm, and watched the prairie dogs huddling in their holes. But in less than twelve hours the temperature plummeted, and snow started to replace the ash. My supervisor taught from a hotel room as she had to evacuate from the still ongoing fire. In the midst of Covid and the biggest fires in Colorado’s history, the Environmental Futures class I was team-teaching seemed, of course, too late or right on time, depending on how you looked at it. We had to conduct every class over Zoom, and our guest speakers spoke from homes as far away as Hawai’i, the UK and Canada.

Once I learned about my brain tumour, I wrote my notes from the surgeon and the neurologist in the back of my notebook for the class. In the front were notes on visual activism for our ecologies, collaborative art practices, multispecies relational hopes. In the back I asked my surgeon about my risks of dying or losing critical motor and expressive functions from the craniotomy. About different tumour probabilities, prognoses and causes. I wrote notes to my partner when the online meetings triggered my migraines and nausea. I asked him for medications and ginger ale.

One of our guest speakers for the Environmental Futures seminar was Robin Wall Kimmerer, a Potawatomi environmentalist and biologist whose 2013 book Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teaching of Plants, recently and belatedly exploded in popularity in the US. In her talk she spoke about being in relation with our ecosystems, including toxic places. Does anyone love those places? I wondered. How can they be in relationship with anyone or anything? Particularly, how do I be in relationship to a place like these lands in Colorado, shaped by nuclear history and fires, especially in the midst of a pandemic that seems so anti-relationship? Later I wondered if I could even be in relationship with my own body as an ecosystem when it tends to grow things like tumours in my brain. Kimmerer stated that in a toxic landscape we can ‘still see resilience in the biota of these places’ and can rewrite our relationships with them as we work towards something that looks like justice and healing. Hard places are places of courage she said, and plants, despite everything, keep finding ways to grow in wounded space. They make life right where they are. Kimmerer’s belief in beauty and resilience does not allow us to throw the whole place or the whole body away.

My body’s tumour still feels like a dark and nasty betrayal. I wish I had been more forgiving and gentler with myself whenever I was in pain. I wish I had believed myself and not previous doctors who had simply blamed my migraines on anxiety, stress—the usual culprits when a doctor is looking at a young woman’s medical records. Kimmerer’s words gather in my mind, though. The migraines were a red flag, a call for help. They were trying to save me the whole time. My body knew and tried to let me know too. It sent the messages its cells have access to.


It is deeply lonely to go through a brain tumour diagnosis in a place that seemed doubly hostile to us because we knew almost no-one when we moved there, and in the middle of a pandemic there feels like no community to build on. Before Covid, one friend used to say that, whenever she went somewhere with me, I would stop all the time to say hello or have a brief chat with people I knew as we passed them. ‘You know everyone,’ she said, half frustrated, half impressed.

Upon the tumour diagnosis, my moments with medical workers did at least give me an opportunity to see someone outside my apartment. For some reason, what to wear for my doctors seemed important. I planned the outfit the night before. For MRI scans, I could not wear metal of any kind. Comfortable elastic-waisted pants and a shirt I could easily take off and replace with a gown. I chose socks with fun patterns, like bees or llamas. For trips to see my surgeon in Fort Collins, over an hour away, I chose my nicest pants that were not too constricting. At the same time, I chose clothes that felt like they allowed the surgeon to see what I am like, to see me. I wore my boots painted with flowers, my favourite hat. I wore my best mask, with the black and white stripes that go with everything. As if that allowed my personality to come through. As if it would ensure that, in the surgery, I would live.

Before the surgery I had a functional MRI scan in Colorado’s largest hospital. The functional MRI provides more information than a regular MRI. It maps out the essential areas of certain parts of the brain. I did this so that my surgeon knew where to cut in order to avoid any speech areas. Surgeons and radiologists call these areas of the brain, that allow us to use language, or to move, or enable other sensory areas, the ‘eloquent’ areas. They allow us to process information and express ourselves.

My partner, as for all my scans, could only drop me off in the carpark and wait outside. But even if someone can come into the waiting room with you, as in pre-Covid times, the MRI is still isolating.

For this scan I had to think of common nouns beginning with certain letters, or complete easy sentences. The first letter was ‘A’. All I could think of was ‘asshole’. I wanted to be creative afterwards, to make up for it, but it is hard to feel creative inside a large noise-filled machine, even though the technicians had gently covered me with a warm steamed blanket. I did not feel so ‘eloquent’.

It did not matter, though. Afterwards the scan showed my brain all lit up in rainbows: just simple words had bloomed great arcs of colour.

Kimmerer suggested in her talk that we should not privilege vision or language when we are trying to pay attention with compassion to the landscapes around us. Language, especially, can be a barrier to perception. It can facilitate understanding, but it also has the power to raise up hurdles, blocks and gaps. So Kimmerer asked her audience to try to cultivate a languageless way of knowing, which might be exhausting but also rewarding. As I listened to her, I wondered if I could also apply this thinking to the landscape of my brain, of my body. I always thought language was where I was most powerful, where I had the most strength, where I had the ability to make relations.

But my tumour was nestled so close to my speech areas. After the craniotomy, my surgeon said, I could have speech delays for a short time. Especially when naming things. In the end, though, I signed the consent forms.


Against all odds my mother managed to fly to the US from New Zealand, changing her flights to arrive just before my surgery after it was bumped up. Mum was not used to all the mask-wearing or having to find empty corners in the airport to eat and drink. ‘Remember to wipe down your bags with sanitising wipes,’ I told her. And then told her again and again. When she arrived, we did not hug until she had quarantined her belongings in an empty closet, and until after she had showered. If the timing had not been so urgent, she would have quarantined herself, but this time we trusted she had made it virus-free.

Of course, she could not visit me in the hospital, which was also located one hour north from our home. The night before the surgery I cried next to her, feeling like my body and everything else was running so swiftly out of time.

My dad called me in the middle of the New Zealand night as we drove to the hospital in the early hours. He prayed and it left me some peace while the leftover Christmas lights in front of the hospital glowed blue. In midwinter, the sun had not started to rise for us.

In the preoperative room, as a nurse inserted needles into my hands, attached a patch for my lower back to prevent bedsores, took my temperature, I asked her if this hospital had seen many brain tumours. ‘We never used to,’ she said. ‘But in the last ten years, many.’

Before my craniotomy, my surgeon warned that if any residual tumour was leftover, or if it was not what she expected, then radiotherapy and chemotherapy would be on the table. I am a researcher whose work focuses on, in part, literature that documents and protests the devastating effects of irradiation from nuclear testing in the Pacific. And now, also living on lands so close to a former nuclear facility in Colorado, the irony of this position—of potentially needing radiation to prolong my life—did not escape me.

When it was time for the surgery, I said goodbye to my partner. His eyes above his mask—he wore his best mask, too—held mine.

Sometimes fear is white hot. Sometimes it is a puff of cold air that dissipates with someone’s joke or touch. Sometimes it is straps around my heart and throat, pulling tight. Sometimes it is a flash, a cry in the night.


According to Celtic mythology there are places in nature that are ‘thin’: that is, they are places where we suddenly might find ourselves not far from the spirits and their world. Waking up from the surgery also felt like being in a thin place.

I reached to feel the bandage on my head, so I knew the surgery was real. A nurse checked my monitors. She asked me questions. I could understand her and that gave me relief. I answered yes or no, but nothing more. I was tired. After checking on the monitors, my nurse discussed her weekend plans with one of the assistants. I slept and woke, slept and woke.


Much to my husband’s distress, I spent much more time in recovery than he expected. Finally, at seven o’clock that first night, the nurses wheeled me into the high-dependency surgical unit where he was waiting. I still was not very interested in words. But I could thank the nurses, ask how Josh was.

I was grateful that I still felt like me. Allowing someone to go into my brain and remove a piece felt like a dark threat to my whole sense of self. I was thankful to realise that I still knew things, could understand things. I could speak sentences.

Names were harder, though. I knew exactly what I was trying to name. I knew how the name’s shape ballooned in my head. But it would not come out. I wanted to ask my husband about his Pokémon game. I could only think of the word ‘porcupine’. I wanted to say the word ‘vase’, or ‘bagel’, the name of a newish friend, or the name of the show my mother liked to watch (‘Home Town’). The names would not come to me, especially words I’d learned more recently. Later I saw the notes from my speech therapist, who I only vaguely remembered from the day after surgery, who wrote that I under-scored across the board for complex thoughts and expressions, though she also blamed this on extreme fatigue.

Names were important. But I did not know about my therapist’s notes at that time, and I was too tired to struggle over word specifics. I knew that I still knew things. I knew that I could understand the world still, with or without words, and also that I needed rest.

After I was discharged from the hospital, my mum and I watched medical shows on TV, and I saw how patients’ family members all crowded into the room during major diagnoses. I knew my grief at losing that, due to Covid, but also knew how hard it was to acknowledge that kind of grief in the US where there are so many unacknowledged layers of grief in its history, including all the different types of loss, big and small, regarding what the virus has taken or forced some of us to reckon with. I remembered my rage every time an anti-masker said that anyone who died from Covid had pre-existing conditions, not realising that they themselves probably also had pre-existing conditions, and knowing that if I, at 31, died from Covid, they would blame it on my brain tumour, that my death would be irrelevant.

But I grew in strength; my mother took me for walks. First for five minutes, then ten, then more. I was unsteady on my feet, but what I loved most was a walk to see the prairie dogs and the horses over the railroad tracks behind our apartment complex. One day we saw a coyote. There were two nesting bald eagles in the distance. It was very cold. It kept snowing but we looked out for early buds on the trees. Several months earlier I had seen hundreds of geese swooping towards a small lake in the distance—their resting place on their way south. My husband told me of the owl he heard calling from the parking garage.

My words started to come back, but I took comfort that I could still understand the world without them, and know that there are other kinds of knowing, too. Kimmerer, of course, is not hostile to words. She writes that names help us shape the world, just like other forms of knowing, and allow us to become reacquainted with it, too. But having that space away from names allowed me to reckon with the vulnerability of the body, and to face the fragility of lands where colonial powers refuse to acknowledge lasting, meaningful responsibilities, accountabilities.

When I received the pathology report for my tumour, I had a new name to understand what was going on in my brain. I choose to keep this name to myself for now, but those of you with any familiarity with brain tumours probably already know it. Naturally I googled that name immediately, found out that some pathologists see the cells of that tumour as fried eggs nestled with brain cells, where others envision it as octopus-like, with tentacles infiltrating. But as I found out more about this tumour, I felt like I knew it already. Like I have always known it.

Perhaps the fried egg in my brain has not been an anomaly for me for some time, much like how the satellites that now wheel above us in the atmosphere are no longer strangers to space. As I write this, NASA just flew a helicopter on Mars. We are a part of Earth’s ecosystems, and even space’s ecosystems. We have added to, subtracted from, and exponentially multiplied our impacts on those ecosystems, and they affect us, too, in good ways and desperately difficult ways. Our actions led to Covid’s proliferation throughout the world, and now it affects our own proliferation, too. We are part of Earth’s biota, as is the tumour in my head. It grew from a distortion in my own cells. We have to live with these things, sometimes die with these things. The tumour is trying to make its way and I must negotiate my own world around it, make peace with my body who grows it, work to live through its impacts as much as possible. All of us, human and non-human, body and cell, are figuring out practices of living and relationship on deeply damaged lands as we spin in one tiny part of a still mostly unknown universe.


Bonnie Etherington

Bonnie Etherington is a Lecturer in Literary and Creative Communication at Te Herenga Waka – Victoria University of Wellington, and from 2020 to 2021 was the CU Boulder Environmental Futures Postdoctoral Fellow. Bonnie was born in Aotearoa New Zealand and raised in West Papua.

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