Brandi Benson was thousands of miles away from home serving in the military when she received her cancer diagnosis. Today she advises others going through their own journey to not give up.
Getting a cancer diagnosis is difficult for anybody but getting it almost 7,000 miles away from home may be even harder.
Unfortunately, this is what military veteran Brandi Benson experienced. In 2008, while serving in Iraq at the age of 24, she received a diagnosis of Ewing sarcoma, a type of cancer that occurs in the bone and soft tissue.
“Nobody ever wants to get news that they have cancer or any type of potentially terminal illness, but then to get it while you’re worlds away from a support system, from family, from the people who know you best,” she said in an interview with CURE®. “Them giving you that information, it’s just hard to take it because you don’t have anybody there to tell you it’s going to be OK. So, then you are just there with your own thoughts. It was initially really tough.”
Benson was experiencing extreme fatigue which she originally attributed to being at war, the cold and loneliness.
But then she found a lump on her leg, but she never thought it could be cancer because it wasn’t in a body part that is typically portrayed in the media — such as breast or lung cancer.
“I had it in my leg and I had no idea that you could get cancer anywhere else besides what we see on TV or what’s portrayed to us,” she noted.
At first, she thought she had just pulled a muscle but after showing medics on the camp and some other friends, she was immediately sent from her base in Iraq to Baghdad for a CT scan. After the scan she was sent to Germany for an MRI and then was finally sent back home where she received treatment at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center.
“I really did (travel around the world with my diagnosis),” she said. “It started out pretty small. When I first discovered it, it was the size of an orange. And then by the time I got to Walter Reed Medical Center … it had grown to the size of a cantaloupe. It was massive.”
Cancer had never crossed her mind because at this point Benson was in the best shape of her life; she was healthier than ever, so she thought she couldn’t get sick.
“I was in tip-top shape, and I thought — because I wasn’t cancer literate — people (who) got cancer smoke or drank and (had) really poor lifestyles or ate really bad,” she explained. “I was the epitome of health. I did everything right; I did everything by the book. … I just didn’t understand why this was happening to me.”
However, her being in shape is what she believes gave her an advantage during her treatment; she received 101 rounds of chemotherapy in 10 months.
“It’s a lot of treatment, but because I started out so strong and in such great shape, I feel like my health really gave me the advantage to weather that type of treatment of those things that I went through for cancer,” she explained.
At diagnosis, Benson was given only one year to live. At the time she struggled with the idea of leaving her nephew without spending enough time with him and missing so many important events in his life.
So, during treatment she began to write journal entries for him, which included stories about her cancer journey and advice she offers. But the journal eventually grew bigger, and Benson got better — so she turned it into a book, “The Enemy Inside of Me.”
“I made a promise to myself that if I got to live that I was going to create this journal and make it a book,” she explained. “It’s about rebelling against those individuals who think that miracles don’t exist, because they do. It’s very possible that you can turn something negative into a positive and you can live and have these lesson that you can now apply to your future life. It’s about hope (and) giving people a peace of mind and letting them know that life does get hard, cancer is a hard thing, but it is not the end all be all. It can be a chapter in your book, but not the whole book.”
Benson is living out that advice in her own way today. She is currently working with Bristol Myers Squibb on a program called Survivorship Today, which helps to better understand people’s individual journeys with cancer.
She advises those who are currently living with cancer to never give up on themselves and understand that anything is possible.
“I would tell (others) when they get a cancer diagnosis or are going through something traumatic … to not give up on themselves, that anything is possible,” Benson concluded. “It is all about how you respond to the situation. And then from there you can judge where it’s going to be leading yourself to.”
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