How Courtney Burnett embraced life's difficult gifts

After being diagnosed with a brain tumor while a medical resident in Thailand, the alum found her way forward by sharing her story with others.
July 14, 2023
Courtney Burnett

In 2020, College of Biological Sciences alum, Dr. Courtney Burnett (B.S. Genetics, Cell Biology and Development, ’13) was in her third year of medical residency. She had the opportunity to embark on a month-long global health elective and decided to venture to Thailand. Burnett saw this as an opportunity to incorporate Eastern-style medicine into her Western-trained practice. She left the country feeling healthy and excited to experience a new culture. 

Once in Thailand, Burnett was assigned to an oncology and palliative care clinic. She spent time at the clinic, volunteered at an elephant sanctuary and attended yoga classes. Over the last week of her visit, she began experiencing strange symptoms. A minute or two of cramping in her left hand, followed by difficulties swallowing. Burnett recalls performing a headstand in yoga class when the symptoms intensified, "that's when my brain flipped into physician mode." It was time to get an MRI. 

Burnett set up a neurology appointment. Her scan revealed a troubling image of a large brain tumor. As she reviewed the scan with her physician cap on, she thought to herself “I’m going to have to deliver this patient some really bad news because there’s a giant brain tumor.” It took her a while to realize that she was that patient. 

Burnett spent her remaining days in Thailand in the hospital. Overwhelmed and flooded by emotions, she turned to writing and created her blog, "Elephant Lotus, Brain Tumor" through which she shared her diagnosis, fears, and status updates with family and friends. 

While her goal with the blog was to keep friends and family in the loop, "Elephant, Lotus, Brain Tumor" quickly found a broader audience. People facing all kinds of challenges saw themselves in Burnett. She received so many messages of appreciation for sharing her story. "This made me realize, whether it is cancer or any other hard thing life can bring, I have a message to share. That is, how do we shift our perspective and start to look at difficult situations as potential gifts in our life."

Courtney Burnett's book Difficult Gifts

With the blog receiving such positive feedback, Burnett wrote a memoir and worked with a local publishing company to release "Difficult Gifts: A Physician's Journey to Heal Body and Mind." Like the blog, "Difficult Gifts" reached many communities, leading to speaking engagements and new connections. 

Today, she is practicing internal medicine at Regions Hospital in St. Paul. Burnett credits the difficult gift of becoming a patient with incurable brain cancer with making her a better physician. "It completely flipped my mindset to feel what it's like to be in a patient's shoes."  

When she's not working in the hospital, Burnett spends her time writing and speaking to raise awareness for brain cancer, invisible illness, and patient advocacy. During her free time, Burnett makes it a priority to travel. Most recently, she embarked on a solo trip back to Thailand, where she was inspired to write her second book. 

"I want the second book to be less about cancer and illness and more on how we can take whatever difficulties we've been through and find more happiness in our lives."

It has been three years since Burnett received her diagnosis. Looking ahead, she hopes to remain healthy while continuing to spread the word on chronic illness. "The more we can embrace the magic and the beauty of what we have right now, the better life can be, because it might change by tomorrow,” she says. “That is the story I hope to share. It's not just for people with cancer." – Elizabeth Caballero

Read more about Burnett’s story on her blog: