Student profile: How a brain tumor changed Zac Neel’s life for the better

SOJC students and UO athletes collaborated on this video about Zac Neel for the school's annual Sports Media Workshop.


Story and video by Ryan Lund

In UO School of Journalism and Communication student Zac Neel’s junior year, everything changed for him. During the fall term of 2015, the sports journalism major began to feel increasingly dizzy. Neel was unable to stand up or perform even some basic functions. Within a few weeks, doctors found a tumor the size of a lime growing beside his brain stem.

Despite having two brain surgeries within five months, Neel stuck with his journalism degree and graduated on time in spring 2017. But the experience has changed how he approaches his life and his career — for the better, in his view.

We sat down with Neel to get his unique story and find out how SOJC faculty helped him turn a difficult life event into a positive life lesson.

Can you describe how you felt when you found out about the tumor?

When I think back to that day that I found out I had a benign brain tumor, it feels like trying to recall a bad dream. Parts of it are very hazy, but some memories are so vivid and lasting that I’m sure they will stay with me forever: My mother breaking down in tears when the doctor first told us, me finally collapsing into my girlfriend’s arms once we left the waiting room, my brother bawling over the phone when I called him to tell him while he was at work, my dad holding me tight after arriving home from a business trip cut short. Little moments that at the time held little significance, but looking back, meant everything to me.

Why did you have to go in for a second surgery?

Due to the location of the tumor (adjacent to the brain-stem), my neurosurgeon was worried about the possibility of nerves encapsulating the mass. He got as much as he could during the first operation, but we knew that in a few years we would have to go back and get the rest of it. What was unexpected is how quickly he decided he wanted to go back in for the second operation. After my three-month post-op MRI, my surgeon, Dr. Cetas, saw that the mass had grown a bit since the first surgery. Unsure if the tumor was suddenly growing or if the excess mass was scar tissue, we decided to go back in for Round 2 on April 6, 2016, less than five months after the first surgery.

Hearing about the need for a second surgery was difficult for me to handle. This time around, I knew what I was in for, and I didn’t have the veil of ignorance surrounding the situation. I had spent the last five months recovering, and I had finally started to feel like myself again, minus a few lingering side-effects.

How did the surgeries affect your voice?

Coming out of the first surgery, I was diagnosed with a paralyzed vocal cord because I was intubated for the 10-hour operation. For several weeks, I couldn’t speak over a whisper. I attended voice Etherapy for several months and had to get a collagen injection in my throat to plump up my vocal cord.

I very clearly remember waking up from the second surgery and saying hi to my mom. My eyes opened wide when I realized that my voice was much louder and stronger than 10 hours earlier, when I went under. The doctors have no explanation for how my voice improved during another intubation, but I’m not looking for an explanation.

Before the brain tumors, what were your academic and career plans?

I grew up with a love for writing and a passion for sports. Once I figured out that I wasn’t quite athletic enough to play professionally, I decided to get into sports journalism. My dream has always been to cover sports at the highest level, whether at ESPN or some other major news network.

Did you find school to be more challenging after your diagnosis and surgeries?

At first it was challenging, but not in the ways you would expect. Cognitively, I was fine. I never experienced any loss of motor functions or basic knowledge, and I found during the winter term that I was just fine to carry on with school.

What was challenging for me was dealing with my lack of a voice. When I came back to school in the winter, my voice was probably 50-60 percent of what it once was. Growing up, I was always a very outgoing and sociable person, so when I was forced to become this quiet person, it was a difficult transition for me.

Even after the second surgery, my voice was probably at 85 percent of what it once was, but I still sounded like a 13-year-old boy. It was definitely embarrassing at times, but I would always tell myself that if this is my biggest obstacle I have to deal with, then I’m doing just fine.

How has this experience changed your career path and why?

Initially I was very concerned that I wouldn’t ever be able to have my picturesque “ESPN career” because I no longer had a voice for television, but over time I have gotten back to the belief that my dream is very attainable. If anything, I think that this experience has just given me a little bit of extra drive going forward.

Has any faculty member or class made a big impact on you?

I took Lori Shontz’s first class when she came to the UO, and she quickly took me under her wing and started teaching me everything she knew. I liked to call myself a writer before I knew Lori, but that’s a lie. The things that I have learned under Lori and the opportunities I have had because of her are insurmountable. She was always there to check in on me and offer a helping hand during my recovery. If and when I ever succeed in my career, I owe a large part of my success to you Lori.

Dan Morrison has been a longtime family friend. I grew up with his youngest son. I’ve taken several classes with him and spent countless hours in his office shooting the bull. He was the first person at the UO I told about my tumor, and I think that it’s his words that resonated the most with me. He told me to “buck up” in a way only he can. He had enough confidence in me to know that this was not the end of the world. Dan has overseen almost everything I’ve done in the SOJC, and he has always been there with advice when I need it.

And Deb Morrison. Opposites always seem to attract, right? While Dan was gruffly telling me that I would get through this, Deb was holding me tight, letting me cry on her shoulder. Through everything, Deb orchestrated with my teachers and the university to grant me incompletes. She made sure that my graduation plan was not derailed because of this. She never failed to send encouraging texts to me and was always like a mother away from home.

Has anything good come from this experience?

It’s funny, most people think about what I’ve been through and assume it was a dark time, but I see it as quite the opposite. Yes, there were some very dark days where I struggled to see past what was ailing me, but those days are vastly outweighed by the times when I had a gigantic appreciation for life. I have experienced some of the happiest moments of my life over the past year, and that’s what I will choose to remember in the long run.

Looking back, this experience played a major role in shaping me into the man that I am today, and for that, I am thankful.

Ryan Lund is a fifth-year student double-majoring in cinema studies and advertising, with a minor in business administration. This is his second year as a digital content creator for the SOJC, with specializations in videography and video editing. Follow Ryan on Instagram and Twitter @RynoLund and check all the Instagram views he is getting, and subscribe to his YouTube channel at NorthFern Productions.