My Knight Cancer Story: Brianna Barrett

The diagnosis


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 located so close to my hometown of Tigard, Oregon.

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 (AYA) 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 benefitted 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.

Visit Brianna’s Video Blog “Cancerland” on YouTube