For Brain Tumor Awareness Month, A Story of Resilience: Paige Peterson on her Struggle With a Brain Tumor

Bill Clinton Paige Peterson Brain Tumor

It began sometime in early 1996. I felt as if a small, demented demon had come to life inside my face, sporadically thrusting an ice pick from inside my brain into my right cheekbone. 

The attacks became more frequent and excruciating as the months went on, but I was raised in a Waspy household that frowned upon complaints of any kind, and I was in the middle of a divorce. I understood stress and anxiety could cause all sorts of aches and pains. The drama playing itself out in my face simply became part of my life.

By New Year’s 1998, the chronic pain was exhausting. I remember entering a grocery store with my children and suddenly losing my sight. I told my little daughter I had to sit down. I remember saying, “I can’t see.” Then, quickly, my sight returned. But now there were fireworks going off in my eyes. I continued shopping. I drove from Bridgehampton to New York City. I complained to no one. Only once did I confide in my sister. I described my pain to her, said, “I’m sure I have a brain tumor” and then we laughed at the ridiculousness of the idea.

In January, the demon began its methodical hammering just after I awoke each day; I was consumed with agony. At the end of the month, I had dinner at Elaine’s with my writing partner, Christopher Cerf. Tucked away at a small table, I confessed to the almost unbearable pain in my face. It was the first time I had verbalized my condition to even my closest friends. The next morning, Christopher called to tell me that his internist would be calling me.

I was extremely busy that day. My dear friend, the former Beatles manager Peter Brown, had invited me to be his date at the White House State Dinner for Tony Blair, and I had appointments with several designers to discuss a dress I might borrow. 

Christopher’s internist was more concerning. She suggested that a sinus infection could cause such pain, but when I told her I was seeing fireworks all the time, I am sure she upgraded her diagnosis: brain tumor. She scheduled an MRI. 

The day after the MRI, Peter and I boarded the train to Washington with our friend John Reid, the manager for Elton John and Queen. We were chatting about our good fortune to be guests at Tony Blair’s first official visit when Peter suggested I call the doctor to find out what medication she might prescribe for my sinus infection. I called. The doctor said, “Please come to my office.” I explained why I couldn’t and asked her to just, please, tell me. “OK, you don’t have a sinus infection,” she said. “We don’t know what is causing the pain in your face. But we found a brain tumor, and due to its location, it looks to be … inoperable. I want you to call Frank Petito, a very good neurologist. I’ve already spoken to him. He’s expecting your call.”

I repeated every word the doctor said to Peter and John, but it was an out-of-body experience in a parallel universe. The tumor was “inoperable” — that’s what she’d told me, wasn’t it? We sat in astonished silence. Eventually, Peter suggested that we talk about it until we got to Washington and then not mention it until we headed home to New York in a couple of days. I agreed. I remember thinking, “There’s nothing I can do about this. I’m going to enjoy my time at the White House and deal with this later.”

The next morning, the rain was relentless. The White House canceled the arrival ceremonies on the South Lawn and invited 40 guests, mostly Brits, to attend the morning ceremonies. The band struck up “Hail to the Chief,” and then there they were: young, handsome President Clinton and Prime Minister Tony Blair, walking toward us with their wives behind them. The president spoke, as did Blair. I was filled with patriotic pride. 

When I met the president, I extended my hand and said, “I think you did very well this morning. You spoke beautifully.” He laughed as he thanked me. Mrs. Clinton was a bit aloof. When I shook her hand, I said, “I am Pete Peterson and Joan Ganz Cooney’s daughter-in-law.” That context brightened her; she was immediately chatty, warm and charming. 

I had an image of a Sargent painting in my mind when I chose my dress for the evening. Elegant. Regal. A simple Donna Karan black dress, very low in the back. When I had tried the dress on, the woman helping me had suggested I take wide surgical tape and tape my breasts together, producing a fabulous cleavage. The only tape I had was duct. It was more than uncomfortable, but the effect was fabulous! A silk wrap on my shoulders, and we were off to the ball. 

At a state dinner, you are announced. Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson were in front of us. When their names were announced, the reporters went crazy. Then the guard announced, “Ms. Paige Peterson and Mr. Peter Brown,” and the photographers, so excited just seconds earlier, paused to adjust their lenses, change film and chat. As we waited to meet the president, Tom turned to Peter Brown and sang, “Peter Brown called to say, ‘You can make it OK, you can get married in Gibraltar near Spain’” — a line from one of the last Beatles singles,The Ballad of John and Yoko.”

Paige Peterson Brain Tumor Clinton administration

There were 240 guests at the state dinner. The president and Hillary greeted Peter and I like old friends. After many toasts, we were escorted into a tent where Elton John and Stevie Wonder entertained us. The buzz amongst the crowd was that Ken Starr was going to subpoena Betty Currie the next day, but you never would have known it from watching the Clintons. A terrific rock band played “Sherry, Sherry Baby” for Cherie Blair, Tipper Gore grabbed Elton John, I grabbed David Furnish (now husband to Elton), and we all headed for the dance floor. All of us danced the night away: Hillary and Bill, Cherie and Tony, Barbra Streisand and James Brolin, Barbara Walters and Sen. John Warner, Harrison Ford and Melissa Mathison, John Reid, Tom and Rita, Tina and Harry Evans, Steven Spielberg and Kate Capshaw, Anna Wintour, Sen. Joe Biden with his son Beau, Stan Schuman, Peter Jennings and Kayce Freed, Carol Channing, Barry Diller and Diane von Furstenberg, Ted Kennedy, Andrew and Kerry Kennedy Cuomo, John and Carolyn Bessette-Kennedy, Janet Yellen, Warren Buffett, Ralph and Ricky Lauren, Alan and Susan Patricof, and Newt Gingrich and Wendy Wasserstein.

We left at 1:15 a.m., with Hillary and Bill still on the dance floor. As our car started down the White House driveway, I dropped my dress from my shoulders and ripped the tape from my breasts to John Reid’s delight and Peter saying, “Darling, couldn’t you have waited till we got off the White House grounds?” I couldn’t. I lay half-naked — in blessed relief — on the floor of the limousine.

The following morning, we boarded a Sony jet with Barbara Walters and Howard Stringer. On the plane, Barbara, who obviously had been told, said, “Sweetheart, let me know how it goes.” Peter wrapped his arms around me and said, “You need to go deal with this now.”

I met with Dr. Petito that Monday. He told me my brain tumor was a benign meningioma and operable. What didn’t make sense was the pain on the right side of my face when the tumor was on the right side of my brain, as the left side of the brain controls the right side of the body. I sent my MRI to five different neurosurgeons. All five told me the tumor had nothing to do with my occasional loss of sight, and that my face pain had nothing to do with the tumor. They all suggested I live with the tumor and have another MRI in a year. I told Dr. Petito I wanted the tumor out as soon as possible. Dr. Richard Frazier looked at the MRI and, reluctantly, agreed to do the surgery.

After the operation, Dr. Frazier came out to the waiting room to see my mother and sister. “Thank God she was aggressive,” he told them. “The tumor sat on the optical nerve and motor strip, and was three-quarters wrapped around the sagittal sinus, which provides lifeblood to the brain and spine. Once the tumor wraps all the way around, it is untreatable. Paige would have been inoperable within four months, and she would have been gone shortly thereafter.” 

As I left the hospital several days later, a teary-eyed Dr. Frazier said, “Thank you for letting me cure you; I don’t get to do that very often.”

White House Letter Paige Peterson