Brandi Benson went overseas to fight for her country, but she ended up fighting another battle within herself—cancer.
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.
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.
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.
Taylor is currently the senior editor at Cancer Wellness Magazine. With a demonstrated background in the creative and health & wellness industries, they enjoy seeking out narratives of perseverance and empowerment to bring to the page in an engaging, thoughtful manner. Taylor is especially interested in writing about physical and mental wellbeing, the environment, social identity and pop culture.