The ugliness, pain and weariness was supposed to be over.
After Jessica Brunning was diagnosed with Stage IV colon cancer in May 2016, she started an intensive treatment regimen to halt the spread of her tumors and keep her alive.
Chemotherapy left her sick and fatigued for days at a time. Her weakened immune system was susceptible to infections, and during the next months she was hospitalized six times.
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Still, the treatment seemed to be working, which helped Brunning cope. Not until early June, when she learned that the tumors had grown, was that idea shattered.
“It’s like I’m starting over. That’s a little frustrating and upsetting. I feel like I’m at square one. I’ve put in a year, and my body has been through so much, so to do it all over again is heart-wrenching,” she said.
Brunning has started a new treatment plan in the hopes of once again containing her disease. Combining chemotherapy with a clinical trial drug meant to boost its potency, her doctors at Indiana University Health hope to reverse the progression of her cancer.
The prospect of going through the entire chemotherapy process again is daunting. Still, Brunning is relying on her faith, her family and her medical team to get her through.
“My husband and I lay awake at night. I don’t want to do it. I think of the past year, and I don’t know that my body can handle it. But I have to trust that this is the best solution, so I’m going to go with it,” she said.
In the midst of such a hellish year, Brunning has consistently found small victories from the people around her.
Brunning encouraged her kids to make a summer bucket list, and they have been visiting parks, swimming in pools and checking off as many activities as they could before Brunning started treatment again. The family took a trip to Florida in early July, the first vacation for them since the whole ordeal started.
“My husband and I really try to lead a normal life, for our kids, and for us,” she said.
Multitudes of people have come together to help them do that. Friends, family and sometimes complete strangers have formed a constant network of support for her. She is a lifelong Franklin resident and has deep ties in the community.
She belongs to Emmanuel Church in Franklin and is an active volunteer in numerous church and civic groups. With her friend and business partner Annette Scott, she owns Elite Salon in downtown Franklin.
“She is a wonderful mother and friend. If you know her at any level, you know that she’s someone who is extremely giving. When she was working at Elite, she has done discounted haircuts for people before school starts,” said Tara Burchem, Brunning’s sister-in-law. “She’s just always willing to help other people.”
People have made home-cooked meals every day and organized fundraisers to help with medical costs not covered by insurance. An adult prom is planned for Aug. 26 to help raise money for the clinical trials.
“People are so thoughtful, so giving, so kind. There wouldn’t be much to smile about if not for them,” she said.
Brunning was diagnosed with Stage IV colon cancer in 2016. Her doctor noticed that certain liver enzymes in her blood were higher than normal, meaning that the liver was afflicted with something.
A liver biopsy revealed cancerous growths on multiple spots on her liver, which turned out to be adenocarcinoma, cancer that forms in the glands of the colon. The cancer was at its most advanced stage and had spread to her lungs and two lymph nodes.
Though surgery wasn’t an option to remove the tumors, doctors recommended a steady regimen of chemotherapy to keep the cancer from spreading or growing larger.
For months, that approach worked. Brunning would take doses of five different chemotherapy drugs, given in cycles. After 12 rounds, scans and blood tests showed that the cancer had stabilized.
But even as the treatment seemed to be working against the cancer, it wreaked havoc on Brunning’s overall health. She was in and out of the hospital six times for infections and illnesses that came about from her weakened immune system.
She had to have her gallbladder removed due to an infection that developed. In December, she spent five days in the hospital for a bad case of shingles.
When her body developed an allergy to the chemotherapy drugs, she switched to a similar drug.
“It had been kind of rollercoaster. When I was getting the allergic reactions, my tumors weren’t shrinking anymore,” she said. “So they put me on the sister drug, and it really weakened my body. It wasn’t able to bounce back between treatment sometimes.”
With the drugs taxing her system more and more, Brunning’s oncologist, Dr. Mary Lou Mayer at Community Regional Cancer Care, suggested taking a break from chemotherapy. Mayer scaled back Brunning’s medication regimen, only keeping her on one drug that had minimal side effects.
The potential to rebound from months of fatigue, nausea and sickness lit a spark of excitement in Brunning. Finally, she’d be able to do the things that she had loved before her diagnosis — working a few hours at Elite Salon, which she co-owns, or just going out to dinner with the family.
But she had underestimated how taxing the treatment had been on her body.
“I thought I should be able to do the things I used to be able to do,” she said. “So I kind of had some moments emotionally that I wasn’t expecting, with my body being so worn out from six months of chemo.”
On top of the physical toll from the treatment, Brunning also felt the pressure to shield as much of the horrors of cancer from her children. She and her husband, Brad, had decided not to go into detail with 12-year-old Lauren and 7-year-old Brenna about the seriousness of her condition.
“I had to keep a lot of that inside,” she said.
The chemotherapy break lasted about three months. At the same time, her medical team monitored her blood to look for a protein present in colon cancer patients. The level of the protein in her blood could tell them whether her tumors were growing or shrinking.
Tests showed that the protein numbers were creeping back up.
“They told me not to necessarily be alarmed. It could be because I was on a new drug, or that the drug hadn’t yet had enough time to work,” Brunning said.
But when a blood test in early June showed the protein levels getting higher and higher, her doctor ordered a body scan. The results were crushing — the cancer had progressed. All of the existing tumors on her liver, lymph nodes and pelvis had grown larger, and new cancerous spots were detected on her lungs.
With the elevated protein levels, Brunning had prepared herself to hear that her cancer had gotten worse. But Mayer surprised her with her next suggestion.
“Basically, she felt it was time to do a clinical trial,” she said. “I was like, ‘Are you firing me as a patient?’ and she said no. She told me she could give me some standard other options, but she felt I would be better off going with my other doctor and getting into some medical trials.”
Brunning appreciated the honesty and understood that her doctor was doing what was best for her. But the recommendation came with its own disappointment. She had grown close to Mayer, the nurses and other hospital staff who had seen her through the treatment.
Leaving them and starting over would be difficult.
“The caretakers at the treatment center become like a family. I was there every week; they take care of me; they know my kids’ names. So it was like a break-up,” she said.
The following week, Brunning had her first appointment with Dr. Bert O’Neil, an oncologist at IU Health. The new treatment plan called for her to resume chemotherapy, coupled with an experimental clinical drug that targets genetic mutations and will ideally make her tumors more sensitive to the chemotherapy.
She takes three doses of the drug each morning and evening, then goes to Indiana University Health for infusion chemotherapy every other Monday.
“After eight weeks, I’ll have a scan, and we’ll go from there,” she said.
Brunning had her first chemotherapy infusion on July 10, with Brad Brunning by her side. She has steeled herself to the possibility that the side effects from this treatment will be worse than before but is ready to tackle them.
The family also has been researching other options for treating the cancer elsewhere in the U.S. in case this clinical trial doesn’t prove effective.
“There are other clinical trials other than this one. My genetic report currently says there are nine going on around the country, so you basically have to see if they’ll accept you,” she said. “My end goal is to survive. I know I’ll never be cancer-free, so I’m almost treating this like a chronic illness and trying to survive with cancer as long as I can.”
Prom Through the Ages
Benefits: The event will raise money for Jessica Brunning and her family to help cover medical costs while Brunning goes through a clinical trial and treatment for Stage IV colon cancer.
What: A fun-filled formal dance for adults, where attendees can dress in their best prom attire. Activities include cash bar, hors d’oeuvres, a DJ, raffle, photobooth and a king and queen contest.
When: 7 to 11 p.m. Aug. 26
Where: Elks Lodge No. 1818, 56 E. Jefferson St., Franklin
Tickets: $35 for a single ticket, $65 for couples
Information and tickets: jessicabrunning.com/prom