By Paola Sacerdote
Brandi L. Benson, a veteran, speaker, author, and cancer advocate shares her story that parallels late Black Panther star Chadwick Boseman’s private battle with colon cancer.
Fresh out of basic training and only three months stationed in Iraq, she was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer, Ewing Sarcoma, at age 24. Walking away with one less muscle in her left leg, she triumphantly defied the odds. Brandi has written magazine blogs for Conquer Magazine, Cancer Wellness Magazine, American Cancer Society and more sharing her story. She is a spokesperson for Bristol Myers Squibb alongside ABC’s This is Us Sterling K. Brown, has signed a modeling contract with HOP Models & Talent Agency and is the author of The Enemy Inside Me, a book about finding strength during traumatic experiences. Brandi joined us to explain why she hid cancer from family and friends, the importance of early detection, and the purpose of her book.
Bronze Magazine: How was your life growing up?
Brandi Benson: I grew up in Novato, California and played every sport you can think of including basketball, soccer, softball, volleyball, karate, and taekwondo. I’ve been into sports my entire life and was really good at it. I’ve made it in Olympic development programs teams, CYO teams, AAU, and select teams. My whole entire life was based around sports and that’s where I thought I was heading professionally. My goal was to play in the Olympics some day and play a professional sport. Around the age of 16 my family decided to move from California to Hawaii. After about a month and a half of living there, my biological father passed away suddenly. That took a large toll on me in general. A couple of years later after graduating high school, I decided to continue playing soccer for Hawaii Pacific University, and then at 22 years old I left Hawaii to live in Illinois with my sister because I wanted a fresh new start.. I was in Illinois for about two years and decided I didn’t want to rack up student loans, so I ended up joining the army in 2008. I was in basic training at AIT and ended up being deployed to Iraq, which is when everything changed.
BM: How was your experience in the military?
BB: It was a lot of fun. Since I was so athletic it was a piece of cake; I really loved that I was doing something for my country. My whole plan and purpose of joining the military was to play on the all soccer army team, but then in January 2009 I was working out and discovered a huge lump in my leg and I didn’t know what it was. I was 24 at the time, and I never met anyone with cancer or tumors, so I didn’t know what this big lump on my leg was. I chugged it up and thought, ‘Maybe I pulled a muscle, or it was something weird. I didn’t know what it really was, so I was nonchalant for a long time. Then I started experiencing unexplained extreme fatigue. I had no clue why I was so tired. It turned out that I my extreme fatigue was one of the main symptoms of a rare form of cancer, Ewing Sarcoma.
BM: You mentioned you hid your cancer diagnosis from the world, similar to what the late actor Chadwick Bowman did. What caused you to make that choice?
BB: I was in denial for a long time until the tumor really started growing; I couldn’t extend my leg out and it was going numb. The tumor was rock hard, so then I thought this was really happening. Everything was surreal; about a month ago I was okay and then a month later I was sick and possibly dying. I hid my cancer for a lot of different reasons. I only told a couple of family and friends and I didn’t want people to feel pity for me. I was so strong and in shape. I was at the peak of my life and was only 24. I didn’t want people to look at me and think, ‘poor Brandi,’ because it is such an isolating disease. I felt alone, depressed, and hopeless; I didn’t want to tell more people because it made it that more real when I started speaking about it all the time.
BM: What causes Ewing Sarcoma?
BB: I thought those who had cancer had really bad habits like smoking, drinking, they don’t workout, or are really old, but then I ended up having it. Ewing Sarcoma consists of a mix of different things like genetics, what you’re eating, and/or a huge factor is stress.
BM: How was your journey with being cured of Ewing Sarcoma?
BB: I had to endure 17 cycles of chemotherapy, which is roughly 101 rounds of chemotherapy that I did in 10 months. It was insane, I did the treatment and I also had a huge surgery which was 14 hours long. They removed my adductor muscle, so I have to push my leg in to keep it from swinging out, I have extremely bad balance now and I can’t run very much. The whole agile and athletic aspect of who I used to be is gone, and that was my entire existence; playing sports. I had to learn how to walk and run again.
BM: What can be done to prevent Ewing Sarcoma or cancer in general?
BB: I discovered my cancer at stage 1b, the early beginning stage, and it hadn’t spread anywhere yet. It was a massive tumor, and because it grew so fast, it only took a month to grow to the size of a softball. In my opinion, the best advice I can suggest for preventing cancer is the importance of early detection. Finding the cancer at an early stage does not promise that you won’t have cancer or will have a positive outcome, but it greatly improves your chances for long term survival. Being diligent about your body’s health by doing annual checkups and self-exams, being aware of what is going on in your body and figuring out what your body is communicating to you is so important. But the most important advice is the part about early detection because you can save your life and the others who watch you go through cancer.
The best advice I can suggest for preventing cancer is the importance of early detection.
BM: Tell us about your book “The Enemy Inside Me: A Young Soldier’s Unexpected Battle With Cancer.”
BB: The book originally started out as a journal for my nephew Danovin, who along with my mother lived with me at the hospital. Because everyone thought I was going to die I created a journal to serve as a purpose in case I did pass away. I wanted to leave something for my nephew, so that he knew I loved him and that I was a real person. Then something in my mind just clicked and I made a promise to myself that if I lived, I would publish the journal and create a book a couple of years later. The Enemy Inside Me: A Young Soldier’s Unexpected Battle with Cancer is about being deployed to Iraq and coming back with an exceedingly rare and aggressive form of cancer. The book captures my life with the cancer as well as with my nephew, mom, and sister who were there with me.
BM: What is your goal for the book and as a health advocate?
BB: My hope is that the book provides inspiration to those who have faced a traumatic event such as a failed relationship, drug addiction, cancer, or someone who has passed away. I hope it helps them find strength, strategies, and resources to take charge of their health and wellness for the long run. I hope to inspire people and let them know they too can-do great things even though they had to face a harsh situation.
BM: What changes have you made after having cancer?
BB: I changed my diet, which includes not eating meat anymore, and I also changed my stress level by avoiding stressful situations, environments and/or people. I’ve become more aware of what gives me stress and anxiety so I do a lot of meditating, spending a lot of time outside at the beach or walking my dog, and doing things that make me feel good without spending any money. Before having cancer, I wouldn’t eat very well. I was younger so I went to a lot of different parties and was not so conscious of what I put into or did to my body. Now I am more conscious because I know in the long run that anything I do will affect me in the future.