It’s not what controls you, it’s what you control. You get to decide how to live your life. You get to make the choice. You can choose to react, or respond. You make this life happen.
Everyone has a story.
I am Mark Brodinsky and this is The Sunday Series.
The Sunday Series (83): Mind Over Matter
“The one thing I want people to know is to keep your life as normal as you can, do not let it control you. You keep control. You are in control of your life and it is mind over matter. When I decided I wasn’t ready to die is when my thought process changed and I think it’s when everything turned around for us.”
For Brandy Akers it seemed like she was simply getting in better shape. Her physical responsibilities as a night nurse at Hanover Hospital in Pennsylvania had increased. She was moving patients around a lot more and by doing so was adding muscle tone in her breast area. But as her breast started to take on a more vertical shape she paid a visit to her doctor. It was decided the new muscle and a knot in that muscle was simply that – a knot – and nothing to worry about.
That was February of this year. By the time summer hit its peak, it was time to worry.
The “muscle knot” was getting bigger and there was pain resonating from Brandy’s sternum. Another visit to the doctor and this time an MRI told the story – it wasn’t muscle, it was a mass. Breast cancer. “My first thought”, says Brandy, “is this is regular breast cancer. I was upset it was breast cancer because cancer is never a good thing, but of all the cancers at least it is a pretty beatable cancer. The hardest part was once we knew it was cancer they told us it was estrogen-driven. I have two children now and our family plan was to move back to Maryland get a new house and have a baby next year. With estrogen-driven cancer there was no chance of another baby.”
But disappointment over having another child quickly took a backseat to a much bigger issue. An MRI of the mass had revealed some abnormal cells in Brandy’s sternum. A bone biopsy was ordered and by early September Brandy and her husband Darby had some new information, stage 4 cancer.
Brandy says, “the night the doctor called and told me it was possibly stage 4 cancer I made the mistake of googling it. And the numbers that started popping up were a life expectancy of 2-to-4 years. My thoughts were if I died in two years Skylar (age 6) and Deegan (age 5) are not going to remember me. They will remember they had a mommy and can look at pictures, but they won’t remember my voice, or the things that we did. With them being so young it wouldn’t allow them to remember the special things.”
“From that moment when I learned it was stage 4 cancer there were two days where I cried a lot, called out to work, couldn’t sleep or function. All I could think was I can’t die. I’m 33, it’s not my time. But then I pretty much dusted myself off and told myself there is too much to live for, there is too much to do, we are going to fight, going to win and keep going.”
When faced with life or death if you choose to live – it can make all the difference. Others are inspired by your resolve, your fight, your decision to take a stand. If life is going to hit you hard, you need to punch back with even more force. And it doesn’t hurt to have a great coach in your corner. For Brandy, it’s her husband Darby.
Brandy says Darby has been there for everything, from the original breast biopsy appointment – where he asked all the right questions – to sitting with her on the couch, tears for both of them, trying to understand, to comprehend why life had taken this turn. And it’s Darby’s surprise to Brandy which has brought her battle to the masses. Brandy says, “before we found out it was stage 4 cancer, Darby had created a private Facebook page, Team Brandy, and he had invited all his friends and my friends onto the page and it was a secret at this point. A page to offer support and lift me up. The day we found out it was stage 4, is the day he gave me access to the page.” (https://www.facebook.com/groups/420213564849358/)
Brandy continues, “I think the page is his release. He put out there how he is feeling about it. Something for him to dig into and focus on without saying it was only bad news.”
And because of social media Brandy says fundraisers have started popping up everywhere. Pampered Chef parties and Mary Kay parties and T-shirts being printed. And there is a meal schedule created for people to come and make meals and to clean the house for the Akers family. For Brandy this part has been the toughest. “That part was really hard for me”, she says. “It was really hard for me to be OK with other people coming in to my house to clean and make food because I’m a very independent person. I had to step back and say its OK for other people to help me.”
Brandy and Darby have also been as open as they can with their children and while there is no talk of their mommy not “being here”, there is discussion of the reality of cancer, chemo treatments, hair loss, upcoming surgery and other people coming into their home to help. And Skylar and Deegan are a big part of the process and of Brandy’s purpose. Brandy says after she and Darby sat the kids down to explain everything, at the end of the conversation Skylar calmly said she “wasn’t scared”.
“We let the kids shave my head last Sunday”, says Brandy. “We want to let them feel included in everything. Wanted them to shave my head to let them know I am in charge. The pictures are out there on the Facebook page. My husband shaved his head and remarkably some of my friends have shaved their heads as well.”
The overwhelming support of friends, family and even strangers is in abundance. But what about the road ahead? Brandy says normally stage 4 breast cancer is typically treated with estrogen-blocking medication and palliative care, meaning the end is coming. But Brandy’s doctor has other ideas. He told Brandy she is not a typical case, she is young and to give her pills and tell her to go live her life is a “death sentence” to her. Instead the doctor found a case study where women who had localized stage 4 cancer, (like the one in Brandy’s sternum), instead were treated like a stage 2 cancer: chemo, surgery, then radiation and 25% of them were cured after 15 years. So that’s the process here. Brandy began chemotherapy September 11th and will continue with treatments every other Friday until mid-December.
The goal is to make the cancer small enough to remove, have Brandy undergo a mastectomy and then begin radiation. And after only one round of chemo there is progress, good news to report. The doctor says the mass in the sternum is already smaller, even though typically no change is seen until after the second or third round of chemo.
Hope. Progress. Small victories. It all matters. When asked what has helped her the most, even early into this journey, Brandy says this:
“Probably just the belief that I’m a mommy and I need to be here for my kids. I’m a mommy, a wife, a daughter, a sister, a friend and a nurse and I need to keep going and I can’t sit down and let it take over, I have to live my life. I’m all those things and I just happen to have cancer, but it’s not going to stop me. It doesn’t define me and it’s not going to take me. A lot of people keep telling me how inspirational I am and how I’m still smiling and still happy and my answer to that is I have to be, because if not I let the cancer win. And I’m not going to let it win. This is my life and I am in charge and truthfully I’m not doing anything that anyone else wouldn’t do.”
Brandy’s words ring true. When faced with adversity and a challenge it’s how you respond that can make all the difference. But it might just be the way others have responded that has made the biggest difference for Brandy and her perspective on life:
“I want to say if there is anything that comes out of this it is that humanity is restored in my eyes. The amount of people who have responded, sending cards and money and flowers and gift cards to my house is amazing. I don’t know them all and I don’t know how to thank them. There is no way for me to keep up with the amount of things coming in and it is an extremely humbling feeling. I can’t wait to get past this and to pay it forward.”
This is Brandy’s fight song – battle back and then give back. Use mind over matter and truly make life matter.
Until next time, thanks for taking the time.
(October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month, for more information: (http://www.nationalbreastcancer.org/breast-cancer-awareness-month)
Mark Brodinsky, Author, Blogger, Podcaster, Speaker, SpeechWriter, Emmy Winner, USHEALTH Advisors
Author: The #1 Amazon Best Seller: It Takes 2. Surviving Breast Cancer: A Spouse’s Story
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