The "Crazy" Way Mark Ruffalo Discovered He Had a Brain Tumor
He knew it sounded very strange, but he followed his gut and was right.
Whether you know Mark Ruffalo as the king of rom coms, the Hulk in the Marvel movie franchise, or as an Oscar-courting dramatic actor, one thing's for sure: there's no denying his talent or versatility. However, in the year 2000—just as his career was taking off—the actor suffered a setback that could easily have thwarted the many achievements that lay ahead. While filming what would become a breakout role in his career, Ruffalo was diagnosed with a rare form of brain tumor, which he says was "the size of a golf ball" when it was found. Read on to learn the stranger-than-fiction way he learned of his condition, and why he now views the experience as a gift.
A nightmare told him he had a tumor—and doctors discovered it was true.
Ruffalo first learned of his tumor in 2000, while shooting the film You Can Count on Me. "I was working on a movie when I had a dream that I had a brain tumor, and it was like no other dream that I'd ever had. I had become friendly with the set doctor on that movie who was on the board of the local hospital," the Spotlight star told the Acoustic Neuroma Association (ANA) in 2013. "I went to her that morning and I said, 'listen, I had a really scary dream last night and you're probably going to think I'm crazy, but I think I have a brain tumor and I'd really like to get it checked out.' And she said, 'you are crazy, but you shouldn't have to live with that fear, so I'll order you an MRI—or CAT scan—tomorrow.'"
Within an hour of the test, his doctor returned to share the results of the imaging. "She came in and she was white as a sheet, and she said, 'you have a mass behind your left ear that's the size of a golf ball. We don't know what it is exactly, and you'll need an MRI.' And I thought, 'yep.' It's not a great time to say 'I knew it,' but…" he said, trailing off.
Looking back, Ruffalo is grateful for and haunted by the dream that saved his life. "It was so startling—the impression from the dream was that it had to be dealt with immediately," he said. "Dying was my biggest fear."
The actor was terrified that facial paralysis could cost him his career.
Ruffalo was ultimately diagnosed with acoustic neuroma, a non-cancerous tumor which can develop in the main nerve between the inner ear and brain. The actor says that while he experienced no notable symptoms after being diagnosed, he was advised to get surgery quickly as the tumor was resting on a facial nerve.
It caused the actor great anguish to think his tumor could cost him his life or career. "When these things happen, you sort of remember your religion a little bit," he told the ANA. "I was praying and bargaining with God… I said, 'please, don't take my face and don't take my life because without my face I can't really support my family, and with my life I definitely can't support my family." Instead, he asked God to take his hearing—something his doctors had informed him was one possible outcome of the surgery.
Ruffalo did in fact lose his hearing soon after surgery.
While the actor says he did experience temporary paralysis following his operation, the symptoms resolved in the months that followed. However, he did permanently lose his ability to hear in his left ear. "Be careful what bargains you make," Ruffalo quipped while speaking to the ANA. "Those are the ones you may be stuck to."
The Hulk star had other complications, too, beginning with reacting badly to the anesthesia. "When I woke up I was so sick—and I was not dead, so that was good—but I was so sick I almost wished I was." He also learned that while the surgery had been a success, it had not been without obstacles. "My father told me that my heart had stopped briefly on the operating table," he explained.
For more health news sent directly to your inbox, sign up for our daily newsletter.
He says having a tumor was a "gift" that made him love acting more.
Despite the harrowing nature of his health scare, Ruffalo still manages to find the silver lining. "I see it as kind of a gift in a weird way," the actor told W Magazine in 2011. "Your priorities become very clear. My relationship to acting became very clear. At that point I thought maybe I wasn't enjoying it the way I thought I would, and so having that kind of taken away from me for a little while made me understand how much I actually loved it and cared about it," he added.
Looking back, he now says that turning bad luck into good and seeing the best in things has become a recurring theme in his life. Describing his tumor as "the best of the worst" in a 2012 interview, he said, "I didn't die, but I learned a lot about myself… I learned that I could survive."