Fighters Fight, Right?
By: Brittany Brigandi
Friday, June 14, 2013: The scariest, most life changing day of my life. My name is Brittany Brigandi. I am 24 years old, from Syracuse, NY. Over the last 6 years of my life I have faced extremely challenging obstacles, some that most people will only see once in their entire lifetime. I realize that if it wasn’t for my father, my upbringing, and my faith, I would not have been successful or overcome any of the challenges that were placed in front of me.
I never realized how strong my bond was with my father until my senior year of high school — January 18, 2008: the first real obstacle I had faced. I will never forget the news. My father had been diagnosed for the first time with stage 4 colon cancer. His chances of survival were extremely slim and odds were against us. As his 17 year old daughter at the time, I made sure I stayed strong for him and my family in order to help us all get through this together. My mother took the news extremely hard and the dynamic of our family had changed after 2008. My father ended up winning his battle with cancer during my freshman year of college while I was at UMass Amherst where I played lacrosse. During that year, I had decided I wanted to move back home, got in touch with the lacrosse coach at Le Moyne College, and I started at Le Moyne in the fall of 2010. I was having the time of my life in college and could not have been happier. In spring 2011 during my preseason, my parents went through a difficult divorce which placed a lot of weight on my shoulders although it was definitely for the better.
After my junior year of college, everything seemed like it was on the upswing. I was a First Team All-American as well as the Athlete of the Year at Le Moyne and my eyes were set solely on winning a National Championship the following spring. Senior year of college flew by and I achieved more than I ever thought I could on the lacrosse field. I broke records that year, named First Team All-American for the second time and was even named the National Midfielder of the Year. It all seemed so surreal. Within the year after graduating, STX, a major lacrosse brand in the United States, had contacted me about being a member of the first ever women’s post-collegiate lacrosse team. Um, hell yeah! Girls from all over the country were asked to be members of the team and I was fortunate to meet a handful of them at the NCAA Final Four that year in Philly — which was literally one of the best weekends I have ever experienced. I was on a high from the weekend and the day I got back I had another insane experience — commentating girls’ lacrosse games in the Carrier Dome. Everything in life seemed to be going my way; I was having an absolute blast and was looking forward to whatever was coming my way next.
Then June 5, 2013 hit — a day that changed my life forever. I had called my dad before I made the drive back to where I was coaching at the time but he wasn’t answering his phone calls. He always answered my phone calls no matter what he was doing. In my gut I knew something was wrong. Eventually I got through; he was rushed to the hospital in agonizing pain. They hooked him up to pain meds and the following day scanned his entire body. The doctor saw his colon had been obstructed but did not think it was cancer again since he just had scans 4 months before that. Of course we were nervous, but praying for the best. The hospital stay before his surgery was just brutal. Now remember, as previously stated, my parents had divorced while I was in college, so it was just me. Therefore, I stayed almost every night in the hospital, in an uncomfortable chair by my dad’s bedside. The colonoscopy was unclear since my father was not able to clear anything out of his colon, so the surgeon decided to operate as soon as possible. We felt very comfortable with this — his surgeon has been the same one since the first time he was diagnosed so we knew he was guiding us in the right direction.
June 14, 2013 was the date of his surgery. Now, I come from a full Italian family so the waiting room was packed with people along with some of my former teammates from college. Before the surgery, I guess my father had told his doctor that I was the only person he wanted him to share the news with — whatever it may be (we were still hopeful). During surgery I went to the chapel and prayed — my faith was extremely strong then, and now it is overwhelming with how much I feel God every day.
Around 3 pm the doctor came out. Everyone on the edge of their seats. He politely asked my aunt who was sitting next me to move over so he could sit next to me. The next moment, and every moment after it, I will always remember so vividly. He turned his body towards mine with incredible bedside manner and told me that my father had stage 4 colon cancer for the second time and his insides were pretty much a mess — the cancer was the size of a male’s fist, it had spread out of his colon, into his small intestine, into his groin, into his scrotum, and most of his lymph nodes. I could not believe what I had heard. I asked the doctor three times — “So it’s cancer again?” — I will never forget it; thinking what I heard was incorrect. I sat there and let it sink in. I couldn’t speak. This meant my father had less than a 6% chance of survival and the responsibility fell on my shoulders.
This day changed my life forever — and not for the worse, but for the better. I went to see my father after surgery who at the time was still on tons of meds. All he kept telling me was how he came out of surgery that day with his fists off ready to fight — only him, I swear! My father at the time weighed only 142 pounds and needed to put on weight before we left the hospital. Everyone hears stories about the ones battling cancer themselves, but we don’t typically hear about the person who is by their side. Those who are fighting are incredible people don’t get me wrong, but I know that there is someone behind them helping them fight through, making sure they have everything they need. At the end of the day, this person is going to sleep with the thought in their head that a loved one is fighting for their life — literally — and it is an extremely trying time for the ones who are doing the work behind the scenes.
For myself, I was 22 years old at the time. I was a college lacrosse coach, making barely any money, commuting an hour and a half practically every day to make sure I could be there to support my dad. No one wants to hear that their parent is sick and going to die, and on top of that having to be responsible for everything that person needs. My father had undergone 24 treatments of the most aggressive chemotherapy which meant chemo for 3 days straight nonstop. He brought it home in his fanny pack hooked up to his port — boy did I have a great time making fun of that. My dad did his very best to hide when he was sick or not feeling well, but as the person closest to him — not a friend, not a sibling — the person who loved him more than life itself, willing to do whatever it took — I knew when he was feeling it the worst. His face would be green, his place would smell of vomit, he had the “shakes”, the drugs made him so out of it he did not know what was going on. For those of you who have experienced this — you know what I am talking about. We had the greatest nights I have ever experienced. I would sit at the oncology center with him all day and stay awake with him all hours of the night when he was going through chemo. There would be nights I was up until 2 or 3 am with him just talking about anything and everything under the sun, then have to wake up at 5 to drive to work. We would crack up to the point we were crying we were laughing so hard. In a desperate time, we were finding pleasure in the simplest things life can offer; love, support, kindness and laughter.
One thing about my father is that he is a psycho athlete (hm, I think I know where I get it from now). So keeping him away from germs was the hardest thing in the world. I researched things until I was blue in the face and stayed up so late finding out what was good for him, making phone calls to his doctor’s office without him knowing, calling his friends for their support and to keep an eye on him. These are all things that seem almost funny or “crazy” to my father or to the people I spoke about it to, but what they don’t understand is that we are literally fighting for his life. If it wasn’t for that research I did things could have progressed even worse. Being the long time athlete that he is, he kept going back to the boxing gym during chemo. This was great for him but God forbid he got a sniffle because it is FILLED with germs and sweat — his body wouldn’t have been able to fight it off due to the chemo which meant it couldn’t fight off the cancer which meant his body would become too weak due to the lack of immunity, blood cell count, etc.
Yes, all of this sucks for the person that is battling cancer or going through some type of challenge. I wanted to touch upon what the person in my role has to think about and do every single day. Every single day it crosses my mind — what can I do to make sure my dad is healthy; mentally, physically, and spiritually. My anxiety is through the roof almost at all times, especially if I call and he doesn’t answer his phone. I pray to God every night and morning to keep my father safe and healthy so he can walk me down the aisle one day. I pray to God that my father works his brain by doing exercises for his mind and not just his body to help with the memory loss that chemotherapy causes. I pray for his happiness and to bless him.
God has certainly blessed him with another opportunity at life. On April 21, 2014 — we received the best news of our lives — he beat cancer… AGAIN. Which is practically unheard of. I don’t think I had ever cried that much in a day, I was beyond thankful and still am. Every time I see his oncologist, even if it’s when his daughter posts a picture on social media of him (I went to high school with her — no worries, I am not stalking), I get tears in my eyes. We would not have been able to do it without the faith, hope, love amongst each other, and the willingness to fight.
After this past year, I have experienced the level of strength it takes to get through such a tough time, but more importantly I have really been able to find who I am as a person. When I first started my story out, I said that June 14 was the scariest day I had encountered and that it changed my life forever. To be honest, it changed my life for the better. I never once wavered in the fight and my strength. I did whatever I had to do for my father to win his battle. Were there days that I wanted to just break down and not get out of bed? Absolutely. There were days that I was angry with God for having me do this practically alone and no one knew what I was going through. Not only was I the daughter, I was 22 years old, I was the caregiver, I was on my own. The people we had around us were wonderful — but unless they had ever been put in the situation themselves, they did not understand what it felt like. I go to sleep with the thoughts every night, I think about it every day.
I did not realize what true strength was until I had to stay up at all hours or when I had to see my dad throw up in a trash can in the oncology center because he couldn’t make it to the bathroom. My father and I draw strength from each other; we draw hope from one another.
I was so incredibly blessed with this challenge — I am fortunate enough to know what passion is all about. I am able to live every single day of my life thanking God for all that I have and to never, EVER take one day, one minute, one second for granted. I truly am an optimist at all times — sometimes people may even think it’s fake — but truly, there is ALWAYS something to be thankful for in your life. I used to think I knew what I wanted in life, I used to think I was strong, I used to think I knew what happiness was — oh no, I was wrong. Now I know what life is actually all about.
Life is about loving that person next to you every moment you can. Life is about cherishing every single second of the day, every opportunity that has come your way. All of this seems difficult to do every day. The world is a crazy, materialistic place, but none of that actually matters in life. I am lucky enough to realize this at such a young age; which I think has allowed for so many more opportunities and accomplishments in my life. I have met some of the most incredible people I have ever witnessed — a mother whose daughter battled cancer and won — they are the real heroes in the world. A girl in her twenties who had to watch her best friend pass away from cancer and did everything possible to be there for her — she is the real hero. People like that, including myself, see no limits on what life can offer.
What my father and I did together is a miracle and we were told it was “impossible.” Cliché or not — impossible is nothing. Impossible is a word that allows the world to be okay with not accomplishing something that may be just out of reach. I am so fortunate that I can look at life the way I do every day and that I can achieve anything I put my mind to.
Cherish every person you have. Cherish that you are alive and breathing. Give someone a hug that you love and care about. Say “I love you” to your friends and family every day. Find something to do for yourself as well. Whether that is going for a run, reading a book, going shopping, getting your nails done, watching a football game — find something that makes you truly happy and allows you to clear your mind. Get your day started on a positive note every single day and go to bed with thoughts of what was wonderful about your day. Tell the ones you care for that you love them and appreciate their presence in your life.
There is always beauty in every storm and every obstacle is an opportunity. Everyone is going through something you may not know about. We must feel comfortable sharing our stories with others because you never know when you can inspire someone to make a change or give them the courage they need to fight through a trying time. Most importantly, we must take the time to truly identify with ourselves, be confident in who we are and know that we have more strength inside us than we truly think is possible.
Never, ever, ever give up… Fighters Fight, Right? GetLIVIN
If you are someone battling cancer, supporting a fighter, or a friend or family member of any of these — please reach out to me. I want to be able to support you in any way possible. If you are a friend of someone whose parent or loved one has cancer — check in with them to see how they are doing, not just about the person who is sick. Take them out for a dinner or just stop by with a movie and a bottle of wine — they will appreciate it more than you know, and they need it more than you know.
Originally published at getlivin.com on November 14, 2014.