By Brandi Benson, as told to Taylor Novak
In December of 2008, at 24 years old, I had been deployed in Iraq for five months. That entire month, I was exhausted beyond belief and didn’t know what was wrong with me. I thought it was deployment; I was young and healthy but away from friends and family, so perhaps it was homesickness and adjusting to another country.
That following January, my leg felt sore while working out. I pulled my left leg up to my chest and found a protrusion sticking out of my thigh. I didn’t think anything of it because, again, I was young and healthy. I assumed it was a bug bite or pulled muscle, and I went another week without worrying.
When the bump didn’t go away, I showed a couple of friends. Everybody thought it was alarming. I was naïve. I had never known anyone with a tumor, I didn’t know people could get cancer in their leg, and I thought cancer only happened if you were older or unhealthy. I definitely wasn’t thinking of cancer, but my friends talked me into being examined at the medic station.
Once examined, I was flown to Baghdad for a CT scan. I still wasn’t thinking this bump could be cancer. But after the scan, the doctors sent me to Germany for an MRI. That’s where I was told the bump was a tumor and a further biopsy determined the tumor to apparently be a cancerous nerve sheath tumor.
I was absolutely terrified. From Germany, I called my mom and she immediately was so supportive. She quit her job, sold her house and met me a few days later when I arrived at Walter Reed [National Military Medical Center] in Maryland.
By then, I had a cantaloupe-sized bump in my upper left thigh and couldn’t walk normally or extend my leg, and the pressure on my nerves caused me a lot of pain. Doctors did another biopsy and determined my cancer was actually Ewing sarcoma, stage IB. That was exactly what the earlier doctors overseas did not want.
I started chemotherapy immediately, five days on and eight days off for 10 months. By the time I finished, I couldn’t even hold a pen to write because I was so weak. I couldn’t walk five feet without getting winded and I received blood transfusions every two weeks because my counts kept dropping so low. It was such an odd coincidence to me that I left home to fight for my country and ended up fighting an enemy within myself instead. I had been through the ringer.
What got me through it was deciding that just because I was a victim of the disease, I didn’t have to be a victim of the prognosis. My mom and I found small ways for me to feel “normal” during treatment, like going out to the mall or seeing a movie. It was a way for me to escape my reality of being sick. We also did a lot of manifesting after reading “The Secret” by Rhonda Byrne. It was a lot of, “When I get better…” thoughts and planning for the future.
My nephew was a toddler at the time, and he was part of that will to live. I was upset that we wouldn’t have a relationship if I didn’t survive, so I started journaling for him. Once I realized I wasn’t going to die, I promised myself I’d turn these journals into a book. Nine years later, I ended up publishing “The Enemy Inside Me” to share my story with him and others.
I didn’t understand how delicate life could be before my diagnosis. I’m so much more motivated now. I set a goal and follow through immediately instead of waiting. I’ve been able to become a motivational speaker, get my master’s degree, publish a book, start a business [Resume-Advantage], train for the Paralympics, and sign to Gamut and Zebedee (modeling agencies for people with disabilities). I want to do everything, and it’s like why not?
My mom would tell me, “There’s always one story doctors tell patients about a miracle individual who beat their type of cancer.” So, why can’t I be that miracle story doctors tell in order to give hope? If we want to, we can all be that motivational piece everybody is looking for when receiving a diagnosis. No matter how tough it is or how much adversity you’re wrapped up in the arms of, you can still come out so strong and beautiful. Your scars are a testimony of your strength.