Brianna Barrett's story
I was 24 when I learned I was going to have to drop everything and start making a documentary about what it was like to have cancer. It wasn’t exactly the subject matter I’d always dreamed of tackling — but there it was.
I had been living in Los Angeles for the past three years, pursuing a career as a writer for television. Like a lot of people my age, I wasn’t particularly diligent about taking care of my health. In December 2012, however, I was back home with my family in Oregon and finally got around to seeing a doctor about some neck and chest pain I’d been experiencing. And when I say I “finally got around to” it, I mean I woke up one morning and literally couldn’t move my neck. So, I figured it was probably time to get that checked out. By the time I got to the doctor’s office that afternoon, my chest hurt so much I needed assistance just to lie down.
I was at the hospital again about a week later, on the day after Christmas, to get a biopsy. A few days after that, my doctor called to tell me the results: I had Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
Turning on my camera
I turned my camera on the instant I heard his voice on the other end of the phone and recorded myself receiving this news for the first time. I already knew, whatever was wrong with me, I was going to make it better by turning it into a story.
People often say that art imitates life. People also say life imitates art. This time, however, the two were determined to hold each other’s hands.
Armed with a consumer-level DSLR, my iPod camera, and “too many tumor sites to do radiation on,” I started filming the ins and outs of my everyday experiences as a young person with cancer. I pursued my treatment like I imagined a journalist would pursue a hard-hitting undercover exposé, and that helped me maintain my stamina — not the kind of stamina that always gets you out of bed before noon, mind you, but the kind of stamina that gets you through spending an entire day just trying to eat the same one cup of yogurt. Eventually, I was able to ignore the pain in favor of getting to spend hours poring over footage and editing my story together.
Storytelling is a great tool that gives us the ability to forage for the little nuggets of beauty or intrigue or humor in those situations in life where it’s not always apparent. I wouldn’t say making a video journal about my cancer helped me “just focus on the good” — I was focusing on the bad, too — but what’s important is I was focusing on why it was interesting and why it should matter to me. As people out in the world, we don’t always remember to view our lives that way — but we really should. Being alive is a bizarrely fascinating thing.
Coming to the OHSU Knight Cancer Institute
My dad worked at Nike for almost my entire life, so Phil Knight is someone I heard about ever since I tagged along to Take Your Daughter to Work Day as a little girl. When I was diagnosed, I think it was a no-brainer that I would go to the OHSU Knight Cancer Institute. It’s a fantastic resource to have so close to my hometown of Tigard.
It was, however, not an easy transition moving back into my parents’ house in Tigard after spending my early twenties living on my own in LA. I’d been in treatment for about a month and a half before I got the call from the OHSU Adolescent and Young Adult Oncology Program support group, inviting me to come to a meeting, and it was perfect timing.
The relief of being offered free counseling services and a support group was tremendous. I started regularly getting one-on-one counseling, and I joined a great group of fellow patients and survivors at the AYA writing group. I saw a lot of people in that writing group who benefited from being able to translate their experiences into stories that could be shared with others, like I was doing with my videos. It really reaffirmed for me how important that process was for coping with trauma.
The advice I would give anyone with cancer is this: Find a creative outlet. You have the power to take any moment of your life — no matter how terrible — and decide what it’s going to mean to you. Make it meaningful.
Stephanie Anderson's story
Learning I had cancer was a surreal out-of-body experience. I went from thinking I had a food allergy to learning I had a tumor. And not a small one. I will always remember coming up the stairs to see my husband, wondering what to say to him. How to tell him it was much, much worse than we thought.
When you’re 23, you don’t think of cancer as a possibility. I had developed a strange cough but explained it away as allergies. Eight months later, I was still telling myself it was nothing — ignoring how tired I felt and the weight I was losing. My husband had recently lost his job, and we had no health insurance, which made me reluctant to see a doctor.
When I ultimately got a chest X-ray, the mass was obvious. It looked like something huge was clogging my lungs. After a CT scan, my doctor referred me to the OHSU Knight Cancer Institute clinic in Gresham, just minutes from my house.
At my first appointment, where my doctor ordered a biopsy, he put his hand on my shoulder and asked me how I was doing. I told him I felt like I was on a roller coaster. He said, “You know the good thing about roller coasters? They end.” He said my cancer had a good chance of being cured.
My doctor and the nurse practitioner, Lisa Radcliff, were so encouraging and explained everything to me: Over the next six months, I was going to have 12 treatments of chemotherapy and then three weeks of radiation.
Within a week of my first chemotherapy treatment, my cough was gone. After four treatments, I had a PET scan that showed the tumor was shrinking. Radcliff told me to hang in there: “We want to make sure we get rid of this the first time,” she said. After three weeks of radiation, another PET scan showed no new activity and an even smaller tumor.
The incredible support of my family and the social workers at the Knight Cancer Institute helped me stay strong and positive. Andrea Lehman connected me with the local chapter of the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society, where I was able to apply for and receive a stipend for extra expenses during my treatment. I also applied for financial aid through OHSU. The process was easy, and the help we got meant so much. I can’t imagine how my family and I would have handled the finances on our own.
My family and I are so grateful to the Knight Cancer Institute for the wonderful care and support they gave us. From the kind, talented staff in convenient locations to the financial support we received, we were given the best of everything.
Alan McGuire-Dale's story
I was driving to work when my family doctor called. The pain that was keeping me awake at night turned out to be a rare type of cancer. I had a tumor on my pancreas called a non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. My doctor sent me to Dr. Brett Sheppard at OHSU Knight Cancer Institute, a surgeon who is an expert at treating pancreatic cancer. Dr. Sheppard and his team spent 10 hours removing my tumor and making sure there was no other cancer. I’m an avid cyclist, and I said, “Whatever you do, I’ve got to get back on the bike.”
After surgery, I had chemotherapy every two weeks. The OHSU infusion staff were totally dedicated — most of them had worked with cancer patients for years. They encouraged me and gave me hope that I would get through it. Toward the end of chemo, I started doing short rides, and joined a program that helped cancer patients recover their fitness. Just 10 months after my surgery, I rode a 20-mile time trial.
My cancer has been in remission for three years now. When I visited Dr. Sheppard recently, I told him, “I want to give hope to people with my type of cancer.” When I was diagnosed, I found a lot of discouraging statistics, so I started looking for success stories instead. Today, I have my own success story to share. Dr. Sheppard and my OHSU cancer team got me back on the bike and gave me my life back.