In the months leading up to her lung cancer diagnosis, Brandi Bryant had a persistent cough. It presented primarily in the evening. Because the cough was so minor, she thought nothing of it. On a visit to California in November, the smoke from the wildfires triggered her cough more intensely. Again, she thought little of it. Brandi was taking long daily walks contemplating some significant changes in her life. She noticed that she was unable to catch her breath after the walk. Sensing something was amiss, she scheduled an appointment with her primary care physician, but never thinking this nagging cough was lung cancer.
Pursuing the Cause of a Persistent Cough
Because of the cough and difficulty recovering from exercise, Brandi’s doctor ordered a chest x-ray. The cough, the doctor thought, could be due to pulmonary sarcoidosis, a condition not uncommon among African American women of Brandi’s age (late 30s) that causes small lumps of inflammatory cells in the lungs. The results: there was something there which, the doctors surmised, could be pneumonia. Brandi was prescribed antibiotics. A month later, when Brandi and her four children packed up for a road trip to her hometown in Oklahoma for Thanksgiving, her cough and other breathing symptoms persisted.
When she arrived back home, she again visited her primary care physician. The doctor decided it was time for her to see a pulmonologist to dig more deeply into what was causing the persistent cough. Another x-ray confirmed that there was something in her lung, but the pulmonologist, Brandi clearly recalls, said, “it is not cancer.” That x-ray further revealed fluid in her heart. Taking the lead from the doctors, Brandi remained unconcerned.
More Tests to Find the Cause of the Cough
The Christmas and New Year holidays came and went. Still symptomatic with a minor yet persistent cough, Brandi had a follow-up CT scan. The inconclusive results led to the decision to biopsy her lung. By this time, Brandi is growing more concerned. As a production manager in scientific publishing at the CDC, she not only knows more about medical speak than the average person but is an excellent researcher. Everything pointed to cancer.
On January 30, 2018, Brandi walked to the nearby hospital to meet with the doctors. She was not told to bring anyone when she received the news; however, her by then ex-husband accompanied her. Brandi had lung cancer, either stage 3 or 4. Tumor samples were sent out for further testing. Soon she would learn that she was Stage 3B, ALK+ lung cancer.
Hope, Support and Family Fun Before Treatment
Within five days of learning her diagnosis, Brandi found herself at a lung cancer non-profit conference right in Atlanta where she resides.
“I was so grateful for that conference. At that point, I was rolling in devastation and fear, and being able to meet so many lung cancer patients who were doing well gave me hope. It was there that I met a man – who has become a dear friend – who pulled a pile of pills out of his pants pocket, opened his hand to show me, and told me that was what he takes every day. That gave me the hope I didn’t know I needed.”
Before Brandi’s diagnosis, she had planned a Disney Cruise vacation for her and her children. Although this overlapped with the date she was to begin treatment, Brandi got her oncologist’s blessing to take the trip and begin chemotherapy and radiation treatment when she returned.
Brandi’s Lung Cancer Treatment Journey
Beginning in mid-March, 2018, Brandi began a grueling treatment regimen: over the course of six weeks she would undergo 30 rounds of radiation, 6 rounds of chemotherapy followed by a year of immunotherapy infusions every three weeks. After the fourth round of chemotherapy, Brandi developed not only high fevers but C. diff, a germ that causes severe diarrhea and colitis which led to a five-day hospital stay and the discovery of even more fluid around her heart. That fluid, it turned out, carried malignant cells. Brandi’s lung cancer was now stage 4.
Her case went to the tumor board of the hospital where the doctors were evenly split between continuing with immunotherapy or switching to targeted therapy. Brandi decided to stop the chemotherapy, continue with radiation and move to targeted therapy which consists of 8 pills per day, 4 times per day, 12 hours apart.
A New Treatment, A New Outlook
The beginning of this new regimen was difficult. Walking short distances was exhausting and physically overwhelming. Attending an assembly at school for her children was nearly impossible (but she did it!). Within a few weeks, however, the protocol was working and Brandi felt markedly better. After just 7 weeks on targeted therapy, Brandi’s scans were clear. She was NED (no evidence of disease) and today, nearly four years later, she remains NED.
“I went from please let me survive to let me thrive. But a year later, everything hit me and I struggled with serious depression. I wish I had had a therapist and I highly recommend that anyone with this diagnosis, particularly the newly diagnosed, find a therapist. Interestingly enough, the pandemic helped me to heal emotionally, gave me time to slow down and move forward.”
With an easy laugh, a great sense of humor, and an even greater spirit, Brandi is living her best life. Since her persistent cough was diagnosed as lung cancer, she has reclaimed her life, been a great mom to her four kids, traveled to Paris twice (once with her kids, once by herself). She is excitedly putting the finishing touches on the details of her upcoming cross country trip. As a member of our Speaker’s Bureau, she is using her energy, her voice, and her insight to help advocate for any and everyone with lung cancer.