Less than a year ago, 35-year-old Brandi Beckman and her husband decided to move to Johnston for the solace and support of her family during her fight to hold onto life.
What she's gained has been so much more: An entire community rallying to her side.
After learning that Brandi had been diagnosed with an especially vile form of breast cancer, people in Johnston have been cooking meals, checking on her boys and, are now participating in a fundraiser.
Brandi, her husband, Tim, 38, and three sons, Derrick, 12, Brock, 10, and Jake, 3, were living in Illinois when she was diagnosed with a form of breast cancer resistant to some therapies.
Tumor Mistaken for Abscess During Pregnancy
"I was pregnant with my third son," Brandi recalled. "We started to notice an abscess."
Brandi's doctor brushed it off.
"Then it just kept getting bigger, at one point it was the size of my breast," she said.
With only two months to go in her pregnancy, Brandi switched doctors.
A week after Jake was born, in June 2008, Brandi began tests to determine what the mass was. The next month, doctors told her it was triple-negative breast cancer.
"It didn't really sink in what it meant," she said.
Aggressive Cancer Hard to Defeat
That form of breast cancer affects 10 to 20 percent of cases and does not respond to hormonal therapy.
"I thought, 'It's just breast cancer, now-a-days people live their whole lives with it. I'll go through treatment and then be fine'," she said.
After treatment with chemotherapy and a mastectomy, Brandi still faced problems.
"The doctor said we're not getting it, and we sat down to talk," she said. "I read up on the severity of the situation. Holy cow, I had no clue what I'm dealing with."
The average lifespan for women diagnosed with Brandi's type of cancer is five years.
"It's so aggressive it takes over your body," she said.
Because radiation wasn't an option for Brandi, she has gone through countless rounds of medication, chemotherapy and a number of surgeries — including removal of part of her left lung, another to remove a tumor on her right lung and a surgery to remove her uterus.
Coming Home to Johnston
As Brandi's health and outcome continued to deteriorate in Illinois, Tim suggested moving back to Iowa to be near family. In May, the Beckmans moved home to Johnston. They now live about seven minutes from Deb and Butch McGrew, Brandi's mother and stepfather.
The support for Brandi has come in the form of helpful neighbors, counselors keeping an eye on her boys while at school, being invited to talk to her sons' classes about cancer and now businesses are all too happy to donate to an upcoming fundraiser.
"I have been so emotionally overwhelmed with the support of the community, the schools, and fundraising from my mom, businesses just opened up their pocketbooks," Brandi said. "When you hear negative things on the news, you think it's not happening here, because Johnston is such a loving community and they take care of their own."
And then there's the relationship Beckman started with Johnston Starbucks manager Amanda Pankratz.
"It's Been Amazing What Johnston Has Done for Me"
Because of the aggressive nature of Brandi's cancer, her medical bills have piled up. The McGrews are arranging a March 31 fundraiser that will include a silent auction.
When Pankratz heard of the event, she jumped at the chance to get her store involved. Now, the Johnston Starbucks is sponsoring the "Month of Brandi," collecting items to make baskets for the silent auction and soliciting donations for a fund for the Beckman family.
"She humbled me so greatly and she is a true inspiration," Pankratz wrote in a letter to customers. "She is a very down-to-earth person. She is positive, has a glowing beauty inside and out, an outgoing personality, but most importantly — a true will to fight and to fight hard, for her life.
"I thought it would be a great idea to dedicate my store's community focus simply to her for the entire month of March," Pankratz's letter of support said.
For now, doctors say the cancer's progression has been stopped.
"We have to do another scan. In two months it could be a different story," Brandi said. "We're hoping and praying that this keeps it."
If not, Beckman will continue fighting with another drug, fighting for her family.
"I can't explain in words the feeling that I have," she said of the community efforts on her behalf. "It helps me come to peace that when I'm gone my family will be taken care of. If they are this giving now, can't imagine when I'm gone."
How to Help - From Pankratz's Letter
- My store is accepting donations of one-pound coffees, teas and other retail items which we will make into gift baskets for her silent auction on the 31st.
- My store and I have started a "Beckman family fund" drive, which will be collected in monetary value and presented as a check on the 31st, on behalf of my team and their immediate family and friends. This is designed specifically so that her and her husband and 3 boys can hopefully go on a family trip together and spend a little bit of quality time with one another, all expenses paid.
- I am personally working on a gift basket designed specifically for her which will include gift certificates to her favorite local restaurants, CDs, books, movies, slippers, lip gloss, etc. … lots of comfy, girly things.
- I am looking for your local businesses to donate whatever it is that they can, either for the silent auction or for her and her family personally. I will make sure that you are each individually recognized.
- Finally, my team and I are making her a scrapbook with notes/quotes on hope/faith/inspiration/family, along with cards, personal notes, pictures, similar stories, etc.
Check back with Johnston Patch for additional information on the March 31 fundraiser for Brandi.