In October 2020, Danielle Soviero woke up in the middle of the night and was totally numb on the right side of her body.
"I tried to brush it off but it lasted a few weeks," says Soviero of Long Island, New York. "I felt on-and-off numbness and pins and needles."
A few weeks later, the preschool teacher noticed she was dropping things at work. Then, she began slurring. Alarmed, she told her parents and older sister, Nicole, who encouraged her to make an appointment with a neurologist. "The doctor said it could be a pinched nerve but wanted to do a brain scan just to be safe," Soviero, 25, tells PEOPLE.
Soviero had her MRI on a Friday afternoon, and the neurologist rang a few hours later. "I knew something was wrong," she says. "No doctor is calling you at 7 o'clock on a Friday night."
The MRI showed a small brain tumor called a cavernous angioma, which is a mass of abnormal dilated blood vessels. Soviero's had hemorrhaged, which was why she was experiencing neurological symptoms. But this type of tumor is usually benign, said her doctor, and he wasn't too worried.
"The neurologist told me we would monitor and that it was inoperable because of where it was located," she says. "He said it could be a one-off thing that might never bleed again, that I should carry on as normal and not let it affect my life."
And while Soviero tried to do just that, mild symptoms continued. Then in April 2021 she had what she calls "the worst migraine of my life."
She remembers thinking, "I'm going to die, this is the worst pain I've ever had." What followed was two weeks of intense pressure in her head. "I knew it wasn't normal," she says. "I knew deep down, the moment I had that migraine, that the tumor had bled again."
Soviero asked for another scan and the MRI showed she was right: Not only did it bleed again but it had doubled in size.
She consulted with several neurosurgeons who recommended removing it, finally settling on Dr. Philip Stieg at Weill Cornell Medical Center in New York. "He reassured me that he could get this thing out," she says, acknowledging that although there were risks — the tumor was deep and she might not not be able to talk temporarily after surgery — it was worth the outcome. "I totally trusted him."
Her left frontal craniotomy was booked for July 7, 2021. She drove to the hospital dressed in cheetah print PJs and socks printed with brains while listening to a playlist she had created called, "You Got This." Her attitude was one of positivity and hope. "I told my family the night before that I wanted this to be as uplifting as possible — no tears."
Although she admits it was hard to say goodbye to her mom and sister in the parking lot (only her dad could go with her due to COVID rules), she felt strong going in.
"I was confident I was in the best hands — I just wanted this thing out of my head," she recalls.
"When I got to the operating room, I was standing by the double doors and Dr. Stieg mentioned that the tumor had grown three times larger since May and was now the size of a strawberry. I was stunned to hear him say that."
After the six-hour surgery, recovery was brutal. The tumor turned out to be benign but as Stieg predicted, Soviero temporarily lost her ability to speak. "I was having full cognitive thoughts but couldn't get the thoughts from my brain to my mouth," she says, adding that it was "so frustrating."
She also struggled with the physical scar at first. "They took off the head wrap on day 3 and I realized I was bald and had 40 staples in my head," she says. "I cried hysterically."
When Soviero was released from the hospital after 4 days, she still couldn't speak, which made it hard because she needed help with nearly everything. "My sister had to help me shower, wash my hair, shave my legs," she says. "I had to have food cut up and fed to me because I was too weak to hold a fork. My sister slept with me to make sure I didn't fall out of bed. All of this was happening and I couldn't talk."
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Her speech came back slowly in starts and stutters, with long pauses as she struggled to remember certain words. She downloaded a brain games app to boost her brainpower while also working to improve her balance and increase her physical strength.
About a month and a half later, her full speech had returned. But she was still nervous about leaving the house. "I was so insecure before my hair started to grow back," she says. "I was embarrassed and thought people would stare or think my scar was ugly or gross, but I soon realized it's nothing to be ashamed of. I was proud of my scar, proud that I went through one of the most difficult things, proud of my bravery, proud of the progress I had made — and I was going to wear it with pride."
Today, Soviero is happy to say her scans are clear and there has been no regrowth or new growth. Although she gets tired and cannot physically exert herself, she feels good overall.
Looking back, she says her can-do attitude helped her make it through.
"If I hadn't made the decision to be strong and positive, I don't think my recovery would have gone nearly as well as it did," Soviero says.
"I never in my life thought I would ever need to go through something like brain surgery, and I certainly never thought I was mentally strong enough to endure it. But I proved myself wrong."