Everyday Hero: BATTLE BRENNA
It's a battle no kid should have to face, but 16-year-old Lake Oswego High School junior Brenna Messner not only fought blood cancer for the past two years, she's now sharing her difficult story.
She's been named one of two Honored Heroes for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society's Light the Night Walk, scheduled for Saturday, October 27th.
And her honesty and bravery are what's made her KATU's Everyday Hero.
"I think the hardest was knowing that you're doing well with your cancer and your treatments are going well for you, but then meeting those people who are fighting just as hard as you are and their treatment isn't going well and they end up passing away," Messner explained to KATU in an emotional interview.
"But then that was a blessing, because I got to have them in my life and I got to see what true friends are and I got to relate to people who knew what it was like," she says.
Brenna was 14, and a freshman at Lake Oswego High School, when she started feeling sick. From the outside, it looked like the flu.
"I had a bad fever, I was sleeping all the time, I was almost passing out," she remembers. Plus, she was pale and was hearing a heartbeat in her head.
Even her doctor thought it was the flu. Her parents thought she'd get better. But her mom says when Brenna refused to eat her favorite food, a Costco dog, they knew something was seriously wrong.
Her dad took her to the emergency room.
"And then, according to my dad, I just started speaking gibberish, and I didn't know who I was, or where I was," Brenna recalls.
An emergency CT scan found a mass, larger than a golf ball, pressing against her brain. Blood tests found her white cell count was up, her red blood cell count was low.
She was rushed to Doernbecher Children's Hospital, where they diagnosed her with Acute Myeloid Leukemia (AML), and a chloroma, a mass of leukemia cells that were growing beneath her skull.
On May 2nd, 2017, she had a five-hour brain surgery to remove the mass, and began five rounds of intense chemotherapy, which included nine lumbar punctures where chemotherapy drugs were injected into her spine, so they would go directly to her brain.
"So, I was at the hospital for over 174 days, I think," she says. "I'd get a week at home and then I'd go back for a month-and-a-half, and then I'd get a week at home."
Those weeks in the oncology ward were brutal. But Brenna battled. She battled the intense pain, the fear, the terrifying isolation.
She made friends, and she lost friends. Her compassion and that shared experience connected her with other kids fighting for their lives.
Like her friend Yvonne, who was also being treated for AML at Doernbecher Children's Hospital. They fought the isolation together, becoming fast friends, because each knew what the other was going through. They'd share notes and bracelets when the other was stuck in isolation during chemotherapy sessions.
"We would congratulate each other with every milestone and we were there for the dark times, too, because there's a lot of dark times," says Brenna, "And sadly, Yvonne faced too many dark times."
Yvonne passed away in April.
"I think the hardest was knowing that you're doing well with your cancer, and your treatment's going well for you, but then meeting those people who are fighting just as hard as you are and their treatment isn't going well and they end up passing away was really hard," Brenna says. "But then, that was a blessing because I got to have them in my life and I got to see like what true friends are and I got to relate to people who knew what it was like."
Yvonne was clearly a caring teenager herself. In the midst of chemotherapy treatments, she started The Orange Ribbon Foundation, to provide care baskets to parents of kids in cancer treatment, to take a little bit of the burden off those folks, so they could spend more time with their kids.
Brenna is dedicated to keeping Yvonne's memory in her heart, and living for her friend.
"I try to honor her in that way and being caring and understanding others and putting others before me as well, instead of only thinking about myself, which is easy to do," she says. "Like when I graduate high school, she never got to do that, and she won't get to, so I'm gonna make that count."
And part of the responsibility Brenna feels is to tell people the straight facts about blood cancer, the painful treatments, and the dark side. She feels that keeping it real is the only way to talk about her battle.
"If you look at commercials and everything, it's sugar-coated to make it seem better than it really is," says Brenna. "The kids are always happy in the commercials. I felt like the biggest thing was like being bald would be the worst part, but it's emotionally horrible as well as physically."
"I knew that I wanted to share my story, and share like the raw parts that aren't shared all the time," Brenna says. "I know that if I had heard a story, I think it would have given me a lot more hope and a lot more, like, umph, to keep fighting harder to know that there's a bright side to some of the dark times."
And as an Honored Hero for the Light the Night Walk?
"Yeah, I'm just gonna be a wreck," she laughs through tears. "It's gonna be very emotional."
Donate to Brenna's Light the Night Fundraising Page: BATTLE BRENNA
At Light the Night, everyone carries a paper lantern. There's red for supporters, gold to remember people lost to blood cancer, and white for survivors. Brenna, at seven months cancer-free, is both excited and a little nervous about being one of those people holding a white lantern.
"They have a survivor's circle where survivors come together and they point their lanterns up, and it just shows everyone coming together. And I know I'm just gonna lose it," she says.
Last year, as Brenna's parents walked to the crest of the Tilikum Bridge, Brenna was in her hospital room at Doernbecher.
This year, she gets to walk as a survivor, even though she lives in constant fear that at any time, one of her cells could go haywire again and she could relapse. For now, she goes back every six weeks for a blood draw, and has scans. Fortunately, her most recent scan came back cancer-free.
"It's like one step closer, I guess, to five years, which seems so far away, cause with my cancer, you're most likely to relapse within the first year," she explains. "And my friend recently relapsed, right before she hit a year."
With the anxiety about the future hanging over her, it's sometimes difficult for Brenna to full-heartedly plan for the future without looking over her shoulder. But the nurses who made an impact on her as she battled AML have shown her a direction she wants her life to go.
"They just really made me feel at home," she says. "Even though a hospital shouldn't feel like home, it did."
Nurses like Calandra, Naomi, Claire, Heidi, and Julie Casey.
"If feel like if I hadn't had her, my situation would have need a lot worse," says Brenna about Julie's impact on her. "She just made everything better."
And Brenna wants to graduate high school and go to college to be a pediatric inpatient oncology nurse, someone who's lived the horrors and suffered through the worst nights and gazed into the darkness, and came out the other side.
And despite battling "chemo brain" and difficult side-effects that manifest like ADHD, she's back at school this fall and near the top of her class in biology, doing well in other classes, and living each day as a survivor, a term she's not completely comfortable with, but one she's growing to accept.
"I don't know how to describe it. I think I just don't want words to describe what it means to be a survivor," she says. "I don't think there needs to be words that go along with 'survivor.'"
"I just want to be a survivor -- and that's it."
- Leukemia and Lymphoma Society's Light the Night Walk
- Saturday, October 27th, 2018 at 5:00pm
- OMSI and Tilikum Crossing