A mother of four who mistook a persistent cough as asthma was shocked to learn she had developed stage 4 lung cancer.
Brandi Bryant of Atlanta, Ga. said she didn’t think much of her “annoying” cough that wouldn’t go away on its own. Her now ex-husband had told her that she had been coughing in her sleep, but Bryant said she thought nothing of it.
“I was so busy taking care of the family,” she explained. “It was not a priority. It is what we as women do.”
It wasn’t until the fall of 2017 when the 41-year-old began experiencing shortness of breath and went to her doctor.
In an interview with TODAY, Bryant revealed that doctors initially thought she might have a lung disease called pulmonary fibrosis (PF) in which scar tissue prevents the lungs from working properly.
A skeptical Bryant went home to research PF, but said the more she learned about the chronic illness, the less she believed her symptoms fit the diagnosis.
“Dr. Google said it was cancer,” she explained. “But, it didn’t make any sense for me.” Bryant said she had been exercising and was able to take care of her four children like normal. Even her pulmonologist ruled out cancer during her first appointments.
After a series of tests, a CT scan and bronchoscopy to view her airways with a small camera, her doctor delivered the devastating news that she had stage 3B lung cancer, meaning it had spread to the lymph nodes.
The diagnosis stunned Bryant, who was confused by the diagnosis since she had never smoked, and even dubbed herself the “judgiest of judges” to those who did.
“I run away when I see people smoking...I didn’t understand why [people] can’t stop smoking,” she said. “To have a cancer that we have been told its only cause is smoking, I was blown away. I was completely devastated.”
Bryant was dealt another blow when after radiation and four rounds of chemotherapy doctors found fluid around her heart and lungs that contained cancer. Doctors upgraded her diagnosis to stage 4 cancer which testing confirmed was anaplastic lymphoma kinase (ALK) positive non-small cell lung cancer.
According to ALK Positive, a support group and fundraising organization with those impacted by the disease, the term “ALK-Positive” refers to a mutation of the ALK gene. When someone is ALK-positive, the “rearrangement” of the ALK gene can cause an overproduction of ALK protein that causes uncontrolled cell reproduction, which can make cancer cells grow quickly.
Approximately 4 per cent of all non-small cell lung lung cancer cases are ALK-positive, impacting people who have never smoked before. Like Bryant, almost 50 per cent of all ALK-positive patients are diagnosed before the age of 50; 65 per cent of those patients are women.
“Going from stage 3, hoping for a cure, to stage 4 and you are incurable until you die...It was overwhelming,” Bryant said. “It was really, really tough.”
Telling her children the news was “one of the hardest things” Bryant has ever had to do.
“The first thing my second daughter asked me was, ‘Are you going to die?’ The hardest thing was me saying that I can’t promise her. I don’t know.”
Bryant began ALK targeted therapy which shrunk her tumours after a year-and-a-half of treatment. While there is currently no detectable cancer in her body, she has been warned that the effects of the treatment will likely last for three years, at which time her cancer may return.
Bryant hopes that by sharing her story, she can help raise awareness and resources for lung cancer. Earlier this year, she travelled to Washington, D.C. to meet with representatives. Along with several other women, Bryant spoke to representatives to raise support for the Women & Lung Cancer Research & Preventive Services Act, which urges congress to provide more funding for lung cancer research and implement preventative screening methods and educational campaigns to raise awareness for the illness which is estimated to kill 66,020 women in the United States by the end of 2019.
For now, she is determined to remain positive. Throughout her treatment she continued working but has been focused on making memories with her family.
“I’m definitely more of a live-in-the-moment person,” she said. “I realize that life is fragile for all of us. We just don’t realize it until it touches you in some way, where there is some kind of tragedy or you have a diagnosis that is life limiting...The biggest thing I have done is I am present with my children.”