Traci Mask battled an aggressive brain tumor eight years ago, unaware that it was preparing her for another major battle ahead. Now cancer-free, the perseverant eternal optimist uses her experiences to help kids in need.
Traci Mask blamed the chairs at first.
Working as a kindergarten paraprofessional at South Salem Elementary School in Covington, she felt sure that perching atop tiny plastic chairs all day was the reason for the odd numbness that came and went in her right arm. Still, she mentioned it to her doctor, who ordered an MRI. When her insurance refused to pay for the test, she brushed it off and kept living life as a working mom to son Ryan and daughter Lauren. When the symptoms continued, Mask’s doctor again requested an MRI, but coverage was denied a second time. As she worked out one day, the weight she was holding simply fell out of her hand. The bothersome right arm had gone completely numb.
Soon after, Mask was talking to her husband, Shane, while driving to work.
“I was talking so fast [that] he couldn’t understand what I was saying,” she said. Afraid that his wife was having a stroke, Shane told her to pull over immediately and raced to her location. The incident was enough for her insurance company to finally cover her MRI. They put her into the machine—then pulled her right back out and informed her that she needed to go straight to the doctor’s office. There, she learned that she had a softball-sized brain tumor that needed to be removed immediately.
Her neurosurgeon diagnosed her with meningioma, a fast-growing but non-cancerous tumor that grows in the membranes that surround the brain and spinal cord. The surgeon told Mask it was the best kind of brain tumor from which to suffer, except for the fact that it would likely grow back. The surgery went well, and it was not long before she was back at work doing what she loved.
Unfortunately, the prediction of tumor regrowth came true. Within two years, Mask had to undergo 25 rounds of radiation and a painful gamma knife procedure to halt its growth. It left her exhausted and without any hair. Though she was understandably hesitant, Mask realized it was time to turn in her notice at South Salem.
“People tell me I’m strong, that I’m stronger than them, but that’s not true. I have bad days, too. I didn’t think I could’ve gone through all of this, but the more I went through it, the more I saw what I could endure and the more confident I felt.”By Traci Mask
“I was so sad, but everyone there was so supportive,” she said. “They all did so much for me.”
Mask knew that once she was well enough, she wanted to volunteer and find an avenue through which to continue her passion for helping children.
“I googled ‘kids volunteering.’ That’s when I learned about Alcovy CASA,” she said, “but I had no idea what it was initially.”
CASA—an acronym for Court Appointed Special Advocates—representatives are appointed by judges to advocate for the best interests of children in foster care or difficult family situations. Volunteers undergo an extensive training process before being assigned to a child or sibling group. They work with birth and foster parents, educators and social workers to ensure that judges have all the information they need to make the best choices for each child. Mask was eager to begin her training, but the coronavirus pandemic put those plans on pause.
While rubbing lotion onto a sunburn on yet another fateful day, life brought Mask a new challenge. At first, she felt sick, because she knew that the lump her fingers slid across on her left breast was cancer. A week later, a mammogram, ultrasound, biopsy and MRI confirmed her instincts were correct.
“It was Invasive Ductal Carcinoma, or IDC—Stage 3,” she said. “Thankfully, we caught it early enough that it hadn’t gone into any of my lymph nodes.”
Mask did not have time to mentally process everything, as she plunged into another extensive treatment program. Her care team reassured her that she would be good to go in a year. However, the breast cancer treatments were, in some ways, harder than her brain tumor recovery. Because breast cancer runs in her family, Mask opted for a double mastectomy. It was followed by four rounds of chemotherapy.
“I lost all my hair again,” she said. “The bone pain—it was like every bone in my body hurt. I only had to have four rounds, and I really don’t think I could’ve handled five. That was the only time through all of this that I felt like I couldn’t handle something.”
CASA was still on Mask’s mind as she endured chemo and breast reconstruction surgery.
“I told myself that if I got through that last round of chemo, ‘I don’t care how I feel, I’m going to do this CASA class,’” she said, “and the day after the last chemo, I did the virtual CASA class, even though I felt awful.”
Mask completed the required 30 hours of training and was assigned her first case in July 2021. She describes the experience as challenging but rewarding. Mask credits her family for keeping her motivated. “If it wasn’t for their confidence in me, I don’t know where I’d be. They have literally kept me alive. People tell me I’m strong, that I’m stronger than them, but that’s not true. I have bad days, too. I didn’t think I could’ve gone through all of this, but the more I went through it, the more I saw what I could endure and the more confident I felt.”
Mask’s prognosis remains good. She is now breast cancer-free and undergoes an MRI every six months to track the meningioma’s growth. She still struggles with motor-skill issues, and cancer treatment threw her into early menopause. At age 50, she has already reached the lifetime limit allowed for radiation. Even so, she tries to wake up with a positive attitude every morning, thankful just to be alive.
“Huge challenges are life-changing, but they change it for the better,” she said. “I always tell people they can get through this, and they’ll never be the same. If I’ve gotten through it, you can, too.”
For more information about Alcovy CASA, and how to volunteer, visit AlcovyCASA.org.