Living to tell the story of cancer
September 26, 2013
Nancy Bjerken, 46, came to Grand County from Connecticut the summer of her freshman year of college. Soon after arriving, she knew she'd never go back. She had a strong circle of friends around the same age who came to the area at the same time.
She met her husband in that circle, had three children and settled with her family in Tabernash. Then, in 2010, right around her 10-year anniversary, Bjerken found a large lump in her breast.
The growth didn't show up in mammograms, but Bjerken could feel and see the prominent lump, raised and thick. She asked her doctors to keep trying.
"But I never thought in my brain that it could be cancer," she said. "They always tell you to feel for the pea-sized lump. But this was big."
“It was the last thing I expected, I’m healthy … it really can happen to anybody.”
After more observation, her ultrasound doctor detected some vague shadowing.
"Well, if it's anything, it's probably lobular carcinoma," Bjerken remembers the doctor saying. "And as soon as he said 'carcinoma' … things moved quick."
She had a biopsy that day and a phone call the following day confirming she had breast cancer.
"It was totally frightening and surreal," Bjerken remembered. The doctor called while she was at work. She took the call, doing her best to focus on what the doctor was telling her, but all her mind could focus on was the word "cancer."
"Then I called my husband from work and told him," she said. "He was bawling, his father had passed away from cancer."
She didn't tell her children right away, who were between the ages of 4 and 10 at the time. She wanted to feel like she had a handle on things and answer the all the questions her kids would inevitably have.
"We finally got to the point where we had to tell them," she said. "It was too much behind closed doors, crying and talking."
A month after her diagnosis, Bjerken had surgery after a long process of doctor appointments. She traveled to Denver between two and three times a week. She tried to get her doctors to coordinate with her schedule so she could fit three appointments in one day.
"It was a lot of logistics, a lot of time off work, a lot of back-and-forth," Bjerken said.
After surgery, Bjerken said her reconstruction took another year and a half. She also did chemotherapy treatments for 18 weeks, which involved overnight stays in Denver. By the time she got home and returned to work, the flu-like symptoms from the treatment would begin to set in.
Bjerken has been cancer-free for three years now, but she said the constant commuting to Denver and time off work was a considerable burden.
"It's a lot of time and money and gas," she said. "Living in this community can be a challenge in a lot of ways, whether you're sick or not. But when you're sick it's a whole new set of challenges."
Bjerken would like to see more cancer care, like chemotherapy treatments, brought to local medial facilities. But she realizes it isn't easy for rural hospitals.
According to Trampas Hutches, chief operating officer with Middle Park Medical, in-house chemotherapy treatments demand a lot of resources, from a specialized pharmacy to a dedicated space properly designed and equipped for treatment. With small rural hospitals, it's often a battle between balancing the costs of specialized treatment with the number of people who can potentially benefit.
"At this time, we don't have the resources for it," Hutches said. "It's on our grand scheme of plans, but in the next three or four years, we probably won't be seeing it."
Middle Park Medical has, however, worked to bring a number of other resources to cancer patients. A radiologist can give mammograms, ultrasounds and biopsies on the same day. Equipment is available to detect and monitor cancerous growth.
The medical center has worked to implement an electronic system to transfer records quickly and easily to other hospitals when a patient must go elsewhere for care. Hutches said they're also trying to bring a transportation system to help patients get to other hospitals for their cancer treatment.
"The more local resources we can have, the better," Bjerken said, who has noticed more assistance being made available through nonprofits in the years since her diagnosis. "I feel like we're making progress."
Like Bjerken, Traci Brammer initially came to the Fraser Valley for a season, but never left. Now 42, Brammer has lived in the area for 20 years. She also settled in Tabernash with her husband and 10-year-old daughter.
In 2012, Brammer started having pain in her upper abdomen. Her doctor pursued it with a CAT scan, colonoscopy and ultrasound. As she awoke, hazy from anesthesia and her husband by her side, she received her diagnosis – stage IV colon cancer.
"We were in shock, colon cancer doesn't typically hit young people," Brammer said. "It was the last thing I expected, I'm healthy … it really can happen to anybody."
She had surgery two weeks later to remove the tumor. The disease had spread to her lymph nodes and her doctor recommended chemotherapy.
"I'm not an advocate of chemo, but I know it helps some people," she said.
By the end of the summer, Brammer and her family thought she was cancer-free. But in January 2013 her pain returned. More testing showed the cancer had spread to her uterus and ovaries. She had a hysterectomy in March. Then the cancer spread to her liver and lungs.
"So they said more chemo, and I finished more chemo. It didn't help at all," she said.
In August, Brammer's doctor told her nothing more could be done and that she had 6-12 months left to live.
"And I said, 'no, I don't,'"she said. "I'm doing everything I can to prove him wrong."
She decided to pursue natural and holistic healing instead of more chemotherapy. And Brammer's community and friends rallied around her in a big way. On Labor Day, they organized a kickball tournament fundraiser to help Brammer pay for her alternative treatment and time with her family.
Her friends raised $15,000 through the tournament and an auction. A matching grant from a Colorado business brought the total funds for the Brammer family to $27,000.
"This community is amazing. That's why we live here," Brammer said. "I can't thank everyone enough for what they've done for my family."
Grand County residents have united to help other cancer patients. Team Grand County organizes an annual cancer run/walk to raise proceeds benefiting individuals and families struggling with the disease. Last year, they decided to keep all their funds in the local community by partnering with the Grand County Rural Health Network.
The Rural Health Network uses those funds to assist all local cancer patients, regardless of income, insurance coverage or type of cancer. They provide vouchers for transportation costs, lodging support and screening.
According to Jen Fanning, executive director with the Rural Health Network, since the program started last October, the organization has helped 25 cancer patients with 64 different vouchers.
"I feel blessed to live in this community," Fanning said. "Cancer or not, if anyone is going through a hard time, our community bonds quickly for those individuals."
Taking steps while staying local
Janet LaBrake and her younger sister Sue Hardy came to Granby when they were in high school. While their three older siblings moved on to other cities in Colorado or Tennessee, the two sisters stayed. LaBrake spent some time in Boulder first, but returned to open a salon in the same building as her sister's portable toilet and septic business.
In 2007, while the two sisters were working, Hardy got a phone call from her doctor telling her she had advanced breast cancer. A suspicious growth was detected a year prior during a mammogram, but doctor error caused the cancer to go undiagnosed and untreated.
Hardy had a mastectomy and went through chemotherapy and radiation. She lost her hair and had an allergic reaction to her reconstruction. After a tough battle, her cancer went into remission.
About three years after Hardy's diagnosis, her older sister LaBrake was diagnosed with endometrial cancer.
"I tell people I was lucky, because it led them to (finding my) ovarian cancer," LaBrake said. "Most times ovarian gives no signs, and it's too late when they find it."
LaBrake had a hysterectomy and radiation treatment. But she had her sister for support.
"She taught me well, how to get through it with strength, grace and most of all, a sense of humor," she said.
The sisters became regular participants at the Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure held each year in Grand Lake. Even after LaBrake's radiation treatments had caused her hips to deteriorate to the point she couldn't walk, she still tried to turn out to support both her sister and the cause.
The Grand Lake race started in 2005 when a small group of women in the town banded together to show their support of locals suffering from breast cancer. They first called themselves "Ladies of the Lake," then "Team Grand Lake." They held their event in conjunction with the Komen Denver's Race for the Cure. Through the years, event participants and donations have continued to grow, peaking in 2011 with 438 registrants and raising $34,000.
Shortly after Team Grand Lake sent the funds to Komen Denver, a local uninsured cancer patient tried to apply for assistance from the foundation. Gladys Howard, coordinator with Team Grand Lake, was surprised to learn Grand County is located outside of Komen's coverage area. She said the revelation was both shocking and embarrassing.
"We decided to broaden what we do through Rural Health Network, helping locals who have a need," she said.
In 2012, the team changed its name to "Team Grand County" to reflect its commitment to the entire county. It started a new race – "Taking Steps to End all Cancer Race/Walk" – to keep funds local through its partnership with Rural Health Network instead of Komen.
In January 2012, Hardy's cancer returned after five years in remission. It had spread to her bones and attacked her internal organs. She began chemotherapy right away.
"I told her we beat it before, we'll beat it again," LaBrake said. "She was a very tough person."
Almost a year after, right before Christmas, LaBrake was also diagnosed with breast cancer.
As LaBrake went through a double mastectomy and reconstruction, Hardy had surgeries on her intestine tumor. But the tumor kept coming back. And it kept growing.
"We called it the demon," LaBrake said. "But she kept fighting as much as she could."
In July, Gladys Howard with Team Grand County approached the sisters and asked them to be the official starters for this year's cancer race. But in late August, Hardy's cancer had won. She died at age 53.
"Sue was very sick, but she really wanted to do it," LaBrake said, now 55. "So in her place, I'm taking her son, Josh Hardy, to start the race with me."
Living with cancer
According to the American Cancer Society, 23,410 people will be newly diagnosed with cancer in Colorado this year. Cancer is the second-most common cause of death in the United States after heart disease.
Through her own battle with the disease, LaBrake has learned to stop asking "why" and look for hidden blessings in everything.
"My little sister and I were talking about how our biggest fear ever was to be told we had breast cancer," she said. "Then she got it, and I got it. We've now faced our biggest fear."
Although her health has returned, Nancy Bjerken said her life has changed in profound ways after her own cancer struggle.
"Cancer's a very strange, warped gift in some ways," she said. "You appreciate things more, you know what's important in life … you also learn to receive from others, which is a hard thing to do."
Although Traci Brammer's future with cancer remains uncertain, she emphasized that "people don't have an expiration date," and doctors only base their prognosis on statistics. She has always been an optimist, and her disease has reinforced that mindset.
"The mind can be a powerful thing as far as healing," she said. "I really believe I can beat this, especially living in this community."