When Brandi Palmer had to suit up and show up for her personal battle with breast cancer last year, she borrowed cues from a close friend. But six months into that journey Palmer could no longer call, E-mail or visit her buddy. Instead, strength and courage were gathered from a woman who was buried on Palmer’s 40th birthday and had shown humility and grace during a courageous struggle with Stage IV colo-rectal cancer.
Palmer says her friend, who was diagnosed at age 30 and passed away at age 32–six months following Palmer’s own cancer diagnosis–offered a priceless example of how important attitude is in fighting the disease, even though she lost her life.
“I was lucky to have witnessed my friend’s illness, be available to her for support and see how she handled it with an upbeat outlook and a huge dose of dignity,” says Palmer.
Palmer, mother of 6-year-old Olivia and 9-year-old Victoria and wife to physician husband, Brad, had her first routine baseline mammogram on Oct. 24, 2008. She went with her sister-in-law, who scheduled a test for herself that day, too, at the Goppert Center for Breast Care. In fact, the duo planned to make it a girl’s day out of sorts–following their appointments they planned to have lunch and shop.
“My sister-in-law had some trepidation about her mammogram,” recalls Palmer. “Her breasts were fibrous, and because of that she was always afraid of the uncomfortable process.”
An advocate of no-excuses screening and self-breast exams, Palmer was shocked when she received a call the following Monday with unexpected news. Her doctor requested additional images and a sonogram, which ultimately showed that Palmer had breast microcalcifications, or tiny specks of mineral deposits. Those results prompted a stereotactical biopsy, a test that showed Palmer had DCIS, a Stage I breast cancer. Although Palmer couldn’t feel a lump, she had a small tumor of the aggressive nature, and it was on the verge of infiltrating outside the duct.
Palmer’s doctor gave her a couple of options, including a lumpectomy and radiation or a double mastectomy. She was given the percentages: if she chose the first course, the cancer would have a 60 to 65 percent chance of reoccurring and if it did, Palmer would have to have a mammogram biopsy, a lumpectomy and radiation.
The second choice was more radical from a physical perspective but lessened the chances of the breast cancer coming back. Palmer and her husband talked at length with the doctor about the two sides of the coin; she chose to have the double mastectomy for many reasons, including the aggressive type of her cancer, family history (her grandmother and great-grandmother both experienced breast cancer), her young age and her children.
“I decided that if I could eliminate the odds of the breast cancer coming back, that would be the sane and rational choice for me,” says Palmer. “I want to be around for my children. It was phenomenal that I could dictate what I wanted to do instead of the disease mandating what I had to do.”
Palmer was open and honest with her daughters about her unrelenting disease and the surgery she faced. She analogized her breast tumor to the approximate size of a Cocoa Puff, a visual the youngsters could grasp, and also emphasized the importance of women taking care of themselves throughout their lives. She also launched a blog where she was able to embrace her experiences, fear and sadness and rally the unconditional love and support of family and friends.
But Palmer looked at the positive side of the ledger more than the negative when it came to her cancer diagnosis. Always an optimist, Palmer decided that her approach to cancer would be one of gratitude and finding that proverbial treasure at the end of the rainbow.
“It was vital to me that I didn’t live with the negative day-in and day-out,” says Palmer. “I adopted a positive perspective and always kept in mind Shawndra, my friend who died four days before my birthday. I was lucky because they caught mine relatively early.”
Joseph Cannova, MD, a plastic surgeon with Associated Plastic Surgeons in Leawood, did Palmer’s reconstructive surgery following the mastectomy. His goal was to restore Palmer’s physical appearance and alleviate her fears and concerns.
“I first saw Brandi when she was 39,” says Cannova. “As a surgeon it’s my responsibility to be very specific about the options. She made a monumental decision to have the mastectomy and with her age and the high-grade comedo type of cancer, it made sense. In her young life she’s done with breast cancer.”
Palmer says Cannova and his team worked with her to make her feel comfortable with her decisions, the results of the surgery, the reconstruction process and subsequent recovery period.
“It was essential to me that I do whatever I could to eradicate the cancer,” says Palmer. “I made a decision that not all women would make, but it worked for me and my family.”
Palmer, who exudes confidence, serenity and determination, encourages women not to wait for the lump and be vigilant in early detection. She serves on the newly formed advisory board of St. Luke’s Center for Breast Care as a crystal-clear voice for younger women facing breast cancer.
“When the cancer is caught in its early stages you usually have a lot more options,” says Palmer. “I have been afforded a full life with my family. I’m excited to do outreach and help raise awareness.”
Olivia, Victoria and Brad are thankful for Palmer’s no-excuses attitude of facing down her disease and grabbing that pot of gold at the rainbow’s end. And Palmer knows she’s given herself the gift of a future with that loving family.
words: Kimberly Stern
photos: Gary Rohman