The answer was short, blunt and devastating.
Jessica Brunning was still trying to process the diagnosis she had been given. Colon cancer had spread to her liver, her lungs and into the connective tissue in her abdomen. The disease had reached Stage IV; doctors would only be able to try to manage it, with no hope for a cure.
Brunning asked her doctor if she would survive. The answer, in one word, was “No.”
“I shouldn’t have asked the question, I guess,” she said. “I’m the kind of person who doesn’t want things fluffed; I want to know. But that was pretty grim.”
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Three months have passed since Brunning was diagnosed with cancer, a time of sadness, acceptance and defiance. The 33-year-old Franklin resident refuses to feel sorry for herself. Though her prognosis is three to five years before the disease kills her, she remains hopeful that new treatments will help her defy that timeline.
Supported by her faith, her husband, their two young children and a small army of family, friends and well-wishers, Brunning is enduring this terrible situation.
“Finding out you have Stage IV cancer as a young mother and wife is the most devastating news you can get, because you’re wondering what your future holds,” said Tara Burcham, Brunning’s sister-in-law. “But she’s a Christian, so we’re just trying to constantly uplift her with prayers and support. That’s what helps her get through some of the toughest times when she doesn’t feel like getting up and out of bed.”
Her mode of thinking has been an evolution during the past three months. Brunning was diagnosed with cancer on May 4, just days before Mother’s Day and her eldest daughter Lauren’s 11th birthday.
She and her husband, Brad, spent those initial days painfully considering everything that this news meant.
“I felt my world completely crumble and a million thoughts race through my head — my babies need their mommy; no one can love my husband like I do; I don’t have life insurance,” she said. “Needless to say that weekend was hell as Brad and I just went through the motions.”
The roots of Jessica Brunning’s cancer took hold in 2014, when she struggled through an extended period of illness. She wasn’t sure why she was experiencing such general malaise, and went to see her doctor.
Her father had been diagnosed with Stage II colon cancer just six months prior. Because of the family connection, her doctor recommended getting a colonoscopy to make sure nothing in her digestive track was causing problems.
While examining her, doctors found and removed two polyps that turned out to be cancerous. The diagnosis was shocking, but further ultrasounds and scans seemed to reveal that the cancer hadn’t spread elsewhere in the body and was no longer in her colon.
“At that point, I thought it was taken care of,” she said.
But that cancer scare would have repercussions that emerged earlier this year.
Jessica Brunning suffers from high blood pressure and takes medication to regulate it. The treatment requires regular blood tests and examinations to ensure the problem is not worsening.
During an examination in May, her doctor noticed that certain liver enzymes in her blood were higher than normal. The presence of large amounts of the enzyme can mean the liver is afflicted with something.
She was referred to a liver specialist and sent to have ultrasounds done for a closer look at the organ.
The specialist did find spots on her liver, but considering how young she was, he was confident it was most likely fatty deposits.
But to rule everything out, he ordered a liver biopsy. The biopsy revealed the cancerous growths on multiple spots on her liver, which turned out to be adenocarcinoma — cancer that forms in the glands of the colon.
The disease had reached Stage IV, meaning that it was at its most advanced stage and had spread. A separate scan of the rest of her body showed that the cancer had spread to her lungs and two lymph nodes. Surprisingly, the cancer didn’t show up in her colon.
“They think that when I had it two years ago, even though it was Stage Zero cancer, it can spread quickly. There must have been a spot floating around somewhere,” she said.
Because of the advanced progression of the cancer, treatment started immediately. Jessica Brunning met with oncologist Dr. Mary Lou Mayer at Community Regional Cancer Care.
Though the cancer couldn’t be surgically removed, and there was no cure, combinations of treatment could keep the disease at bay.
Mayer recommended a consistent dosage of five chemotherapy drugs. Less than a week after being diagnosed, Jessica Brunning started her first round.
So far, Jessica Brunning has completed six cycles of chemo. Adenocarcinomas release protein markers into the blood, so doctors can determine how much cancer is present by the amount of protein that shows up.
Mayer checks it every few weeks, and those proteins are decreasing. A scan taken in late July showed that all of the tumors were shrinking.
But Jessica Brunning is leaving nothing to chance in her treatment. After the initial diagnosis, she pursued a second opinion just to be sure they were doing the right thing.
She is undergoing genetic testing to better understand her disease, as doctors have found that certain combinations of treatment work well against cancers with certain genetic makeups.
“I’m hoping for a lot longer. I’m trying to do everything I can to give me more time,” she said.
Jessica Brunning will receive treatment for the rest of her life. When her body becomes immune to this treatment, doctors will turn to another combination.
At this point, she goes every other week to receive the chemotherapy, as long as her immune system is strong enough to withstand it. The chemotherapy is infused through a surgical port, and then she takes a chemo injector home with her to wear for two days.
The treatment leaves her extremely tired, fatigued and nauseous. Most times, she is bedridden for the next five days.
“I thought by this point, I’d have a firm grasp on routine and how I’d feel after each treatment, know what to expect and move on with my life. That has not been the case,” she said. “At the beginning, I kept thinking about ‘When I get back to myself…’ But I realize now that I have a new self. That old self is gone. I have to make due with it.”
She and Brad Brunning have told Lauren and 6-year-old Brenna that she’s sick. But they don’t use the word “cancer” around them.
“I don’t want them going to school and saying something like that and knowing what could happen. At this point, it’s not necessary for them to worry,” she said.
With Jessica Brunning often laid low by the chemotherapy, Brad Brunning has shouldered more responsibility, overseeing the daily routine at the home. The rest of the community has tried to help as well.
Jessica Brunning is as ingrained in Franklin as anyone could be. She was born in the city, graduated from Franklin Community High School and started her family here. Three years ago, she bought Elite Salon with co-owner Annette Scott, becoming a mainstay in the downtown community.
She belongs to Emmanuel Church in Franklin and is an active volunteer in numerous church and civic groups.
This hardship has amplified how much she has meant to the people around her, Burcham said.
“She can look at her phone, and there are tons and tons of messages supporting her. She’s even had to put her phone on silent sometimes because it’s blowing up with support. We just really want to help her,” she said.
Friends and her large family have ensured that they have a home-cooked meal every day and organized fundraisers such as Dining to Donate and Pampered Chef parties, to help with medical costs not covered by insurance.
In June, supporters hosted Junking for Jessica, a rummage sale and raffle. When leaders from the Franklin parks department offered a block of two hours to use the pool for a fundraiser Saturday, friends quickly put together an event inviting people to swim, enjoy pizza and concessions and contribute money to the Brunning family.
“Finding out she has cancer has defined her life as ‘before’ and ‘after.’ We want to help her transition to the after and deal with this in the best way possible,” Burcham said.
For Jessica Brunning, the outpouring of support has helped carry her through her worst days. Though it took some time to adjust to it, she has learned to accept the generosity as she tries to get well again.
“I’m used to being on the other end of this. I grew up always being the volunteer and helping people in need,” she said. “I’m no one special. I’m just a mom trying to raise her kids and have a normal life. So when this came, it was crazy.”
Family: Husband Brad; daughters Lauren, 11, and Brenna, 6.
Occupation: Co-owner of Elite Salon & Spa in Franklin
Education: Graduated from Franklin Community High School in 2000.
Memberships: Active member at Emmanuel Church of Franklin.
Dive to Donate
What: A fundraiser to benefit Franklin resident Jessica Brunning, who was diagnosed with Stage IV colon cancer in May. The event will help pay for medical costs associated with her care not covered by insurance.
When: 7 to 9 p.m. Saturday
Where: Franklin Family Aquatic Center, 396 Branigin Blvd.
Features: Volunteers and family members will be selling Chicago’s Pizza and other concessions. Brunning’s nephew, Jackson Burcham, will have a “candy corner” to raise additional funds, and Lickity Slick snowcone truck will be on site to donate 50 percent of sales.