COLORADO SPRINGS — I was recently introduced to a Colorado Springs woman who has an inspiring story. I found out not because she’s looking to be an inspiration or to have anyone feel sorry for her, but because she wants to offer hope to others who may have to travel the difficult and challenging path she’s been on for the last 11 years.
Kelly Brassette is the first to admit cancer does not define who she is, and part of her cancer journey includes things she would do differently if she could go back.
First diagnosis (Watch part 1)
Kelly’s first brush with cervical cancer was in 2010. She recalls, “I was just bleeding all the time, and I am not a doctor person, I never get sick, I don’t get colds or strep - nothing. So, to just go to the doctor that was tough, but I did. My gynecologist, I think he knew instantly, but of course he had to verify his suspicions. He said, ‘If you get the postcard everything is good, if not, I'll be calling you, and we’ll go from there.’”
Kelly got the phone call, and a series of events that confirmed her doctor’s hunch - cervical cancer, which led to a radical hysterectomy and, by all indications at the time, a good prognosis.
Kelly says, “The whole conversation at the time was like, ‘If you were to pick any cancer, be glad you got this one, because we got it so early and you’re good to go.”
But every cancer patient knows that the term remission can mean many things. Dr. Dirk Pikaart, DO, is Kelly’s gynecologic oncologist with UCHealth Memorial in Colorado Springs. He states, “For most cancer patients if they get to a state of what we call no evidence of disease, or remission - in general it means the cancer that was there got treated and it’s gone, or we cannot detect it. Most people understand there’s a possibility it could come back.”
Kelly says, “That’s the stinker. You just need one little cancer cell to escape, and that’s that.”
Cancer returns (Watch part 2)
Then in 2013 she began not feeling well. She was extremely fatigued and eventually she reported it back to her doctors. Kelly says at first, “Everyone said it’s not cancer. If it were cancer, you would be losing weight if it were cancer, you would be not feeling pain. In everybody's mind, it wasn’t cancer."
However, there was something very small, and out of place that her husband, Paul, had noticed. Kelly says, “My husband said, ‘Well, she has this growth on her belly button that just kind of popped up.’” Kelly says the doctor looked and got a very surprised look on his face. “He said, ‘You’re going to need to go to the lab right now.’ It was a Sister Mary Joseph Tumor, and that’s not a good sign.”
A Sister Mary Joseph Tumor is a rare sign of malignant and metastatic cancer, and as it did for Kelly it often comes with a dire prognosis. Kelly says, “There is no cure, I have terminal cancer, that is my path. Then it was take the kids to Starbucks, and we’re going to have the cancer talk - again.”
Her daughters, Katy and Ally, were 21 and 15 years old at the time. Kelly says, “It’s hard to be super emotional and in a public place, so that’s ours, we go to Starbucks. The future didn’t look like a possibility. At first, it was like 3 to 6 months. Paul and I had just gotten married, and I still thought, ‘I can’t orphan my kids’. We just got through it.”
As a gynecologic oncologist, Dr. Pikaart has to share difficult news with patients too often. He says, “The problem is we don’t have a crystal ball when we treat cancer. There is a wide variability on how people do. Upfront, most of the time, we’re treating (patients) with an intent to cure depending on the cancer type and stage. Sometimes we have to tell people, ‘You’re not considered curable from our medical standards today, but we have good treatments, and they can often keep you feeling good and potentially have you live - for years.’ It’s interesting to watch people as they deal with the diagnosis of cancer and the phases of going through it whether they’re curable or not. Everybody is different”
Diving into treatment (Watch part 3)
Kelly had a choice to make - give up or fight, and the decision was quickly made to dive into treatment as soon as possible. She says, “Just trying to get scheduled for chemo, and knowing it was going to be six weeks, and I was thinking, ‘That’s a long time’. But we got through it. I didn’t want to lose my hair because to me, I felt like if I looked sick it would take over. We did some research and were able to get a grant for cold caps, because this was before you get them from the hospital. Chemotherapy was 8 hours; it was all day. They give you pills to make you sleepy, and then these cold caps (to prevent hair loss) were 30 to 40 degrees below zero. We would walk in with two coolers full of cold caps, we must’ve looked a mess. I had to wear maxi pads that we had to change every 30 minutes on my hairline and over my ears, so I wouldn’t get frostbite.”
The cold caps did their job and Kelly kept her hair during that first round of chemotherapy. “When I looked in the mirror I didn’t see (cancer), I just saw me. That was good, and really helped me I think. The kids, too, because I didn’t see all of that.”
Eventually in 2015 Kelly’s prognosis was extended to 2 to 3 years, but the end game remains the same. Kelly says, “There is no cure, I have terminal cancer, that is my path. The fact that it’s been 6 years in February (2021), I shouldn’t be here, and there is no reason that I am and for all the research and where it’s at, there is no reason I am right?”
Kelly says because she has continued to fight and hope and work through it all, she’s learned to embrace the day-to-day uncertainty of her life. “Cancer has brought -- this sounds weird -- but so many positive things. All those things that you take for granted because the expectation is you have tomorrow, I don’t have that, so every day is important.”
Beating the Odds - (Watch part 4)
Dr. Pikaart says, “I think that I've learned a lot from patients like Kelly over the years. They realize, and they see life differently because they are forced to deal with the fact that they’re not going to live forever. Most of the time when a person is forced to do that, they figure out what’s important in life, and it’s usually not what a lot of us are concentrating on.”
Kelly says, “I count my blessings every day. My kids, they keep it real, and they don’t let me wallow. They don’t let me use it (cancer) as a crutch - you know how great kids are? ‘You know Mom, come on - you’ve played the cancer card plenty of times, get over it.’ Which they say with love. Yes, I have cancer, but that’s just part of me now, it’s not going to go away. But I have learned my “stuff” isn’t bigger than anybody else’s “stuff.” We all have hurdles, and we all have challenges.”
Kelly's message, what she would do differently (Watch part 5)
Kelly tells me that she didn’t decide to share her story with me because she is looking for pity or to have people feel bad for her. While she acknowledges and has embraced that cancer is a part of her, it in no way defines who she is. That, however, doesn’t mean her journey has been easy, and she wants others who may find themselves in the same boat - to know they are not alone.
Kelly says, “In the beginning I felt so alone - like nobody understood. Everybody else has those tomorrows right? And then just thinking about my kids, and how I’m going to miss their weddings, and their babies and all those things. Instead of letting myself go down that path, because it’ll tear you up, I got these little boxes, it’s an advent calendar, so I’m filling them up with birthdays so it’s 25 years of gifts. I got little envelopes and I’m writing letters, what I am going to say on their wedding day, and just planning ahead. I’ve knitted little baby blankets and those kinds of things, it’s just stuff but it makes me feel good. And then when they’re opening it, they can remember.”
Sure, there is a chance Kelly may be around for more milestones than she is planning for, but that’s the trick of life with a terminal cancer diagnosis. Dr. Pikaart says, “There are people like Kelly that live way beyond the median survival described in studies. But you have to be careful with statistics because the median survival is not most people. The reality is that half the people do better when you’re talking about an average or a medium, because it’s a bell curve and usually you’re near the middle of the bell. Half of the people do better than that and the converse is true - half of the people do worse. Most people are near the median, so it gives you a rough idea generally of how people in a situation will do.”
The truth is, no one knows how much time exactly Kelly has left. Dr. Pikaart explains, “What we do here is treat aggressively, using cutting edge options and new research to try to get as many as we can on the far end of the bell curve. That’s what I would call beating the odds, and Kelly is definitely getting farther and farther on the far end of the curve for beating odds. That's partly due to the biology of her particular cancer cells that happen to be more sensitive to our treatments than some other patients. We have also tried to use new therapies as they come out and the longer a person survives the more options, they may get over the span of their treatment and lifetime.
The beautiful thing about Kelly’s approach is that since 2015 she has never let her terminal diagnosis stop her from embracing each and every day, even during 2020 and the COVID-19 pandemic. “I never got COVID, and I work in the schools! No colds nothing, and sometimes it’s really hard to remember that I’ still need to plan for that.”
There is much that those of us who have not been diagnosed with terminal cancer can learn from Kelly, and the process she has been through. When you think of it, are any of us really promised tomorrow? That doesn’t change the fact that for those who are given a medically educated guess on how much time they may have left, it’s generally a very challenging road.
If you have to travel that road, Kelly wants you to know, “Everybody is different so give yourself time. Try making a list, I have made so many lists, what is important to me, bucket lists. What do I want to do? How do I want to be remembered? Once you see it, then you can kind of go off that. I think that I have changed, cancer has changed me a lot. Not that I was a bad person, but I think I was my maybe more selfish or self-absorbed? So, do that soul-searching of, ‘How do I want to be remembered?’, I want to be kind, and I want to be remembered as a good person and so that has kind of reshaped me, and it’s reshaped how I approach everything,”
Kelly is also the first to admit there is much she would change about caring for herself and paying attention to her body and her doctors, IF, she could go back, and she hopes her mistakes are something others can learn from. “If I could go back when I was pregnant with Ally my youngest, the OBGYN and I didn’t really get along. Long story short - his office sent me a message and a letter in the mail saying I had pre-cancerous cells, and that was back in 1999. I was a kid, I was 24-25 years old, so if you just put it in the drawer - it doesn’t exist. I should’ve gone back to him, and I didn’t go back to him, and so that’s on me.”
Dr. Pikaart says, “When I think about Kelly, if we could have prevented her from ever needing to come see me, it would’ve been the best-case scenario. This (cervical cancer) is a deadly disease, and an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. We want to catch these cancers before they ever become cancer and with cervix cancer that’s possible. We have a good screening test, and we have ways to prevent it in the first place.”
Kelly says “I would say, get your checkups, and listen to the doctor. If you ignore it - it’s not going to go away - it’s just going to get bigger. That would be the main thing I would say, listen to your body and get those checkups. It’s so important.”
Kelly sees Dr Pikaart for a CT scan every 3 months she continues with chemo and experimental treatments when they are available.
Hopefully, we can all learn in our own way to beat the odds like Kelly, even if we’re not battling cancer. UCHealth is a proud sponsor of Your Healthy Family
UCHealth is a proud sponsor of Your Healthy Family