If it was ever a choice before, Brandy Reed never saw it as one.
“I had to fight because my baby deserves a mommy.”
After all, breastfeeding her son, Jaxson, was the reason she discovered the lump in the first place. He’s also the reason she never takes a moment with him for granted.
Brandy underwent a bilateral mastectomy on March 5 after being diagnosed with breast cancer in February, when her son was only four months old.
The procedure was grueling, especially for a new wife and mother who imagined her life heading in any other direction than this.
And for the next eight weeks, Brandy couldn’t so much as lift her arms, let alone hold her own child.
“I didn’t like the fact that I couldn’t take care of my son,” Brandy said, “but I literally couldn’t. I had treatments on Thursdays and by Saturday, all I could do was sleep and eat.”
Through the help of her and her husband’s family, Brandy began the road to recovery, starting with a surgery that left her bedridden. She would undergo 16 treatments total in two rounds of chemotherapy over the next four months.
“My first four treatments were pretty tough,” Brandy recalled. “They kind of knocked me on my butt. I’m a very energetic person, so for me to be down in the dumps was difficult.”
Inspired by the life she created, Brandy began the road to recovery.
Her treatments ended in early September, one week before Jaxson turned 1.
“There are so many times in the day where I stop and think that six months ago I didn’t think I’d be here,” she said. “Time is just invaluable to me. I want to make an effort to connect with my friends, make those memories with my family.
“Tomorrow is not promised to anyone. I know it’s so cliché to say, but when you’ve literally had your life flash before your eyes, you take things one day at a time and you appreciate people and situations in your life so much more.”
But before she was a survivor, Brandy’s life had already been deeply affected by cancer.
Brandy grew up in St. Louis and began dancing around the age of 4 with tap and ballet. Dance became her first love, especially through the passing of her father to lung cancer when she was 15.
Six years later, when she was in college, her mother would be diagnosed with breast cancer, adding to the list of women in her family with the disease.
“When my mom was diagnosed, the fear of having [breast cancer] kind of flashed in my mind and my thoughts,” she remembers. “But I was so focused on her getting healthy and me not losing another parent to this disease that I didn’t linger on it for long. I thought about it but I just couldn’t focus on me.”
In her family, Brandy's grandmother, mother, two aunts and cousin all survived breast cancer. Once Brandy was diagnosed, the total went up to six.
“I didn’t think I would be diagnosed at 30 years old. I just didn’t think that I could, especially having given birth four months earlier. It still baffles me to this day.”
After her mother’s treatment, Brandy received her degree in biology from the University of Arkansas. She got a job with the Environmental Protection Agency, and it was that job that brought her to her future in Kansas City.
Not knowing a soul in a new city, Brandy turned once again to dance.
She auditioned to be a Kansas City Chiefs cheerleader, but it didn’t happen on the first try.
“There was something about the Chiefs that I wanted to be a part of,” Brandy recounted. “Anything I’ve pretty much put my mind to, I have excelled at or achieved, so not making the team was bothering me.”
Through two years of auditions and classes to become a Chiefs Cheerleader, Brandy met lifelong friends and a city once foreign to her became home.
Then, in 2010, on her third try, Brandy made the team.
“I think the best way to describe Brandy is her vivacious personality,” said Stephanie Judah, the Chiefs cheerleader director. “She has the best laugh, a huge smile and she's the kind of person that when she enters a room, you know.
“She lights up the room with her smile, with her personality, with her laughter.”
Brandy cheered for three seasons, became a co-captain and was selected to represent the Chiefs at the NFL Super Bowl Tour held at Camp Zama in Japan in 2013. Through cheerleading, she adopted a healthier lifestyle, even losing 35 pounds before making the team.
As a rookie on the squad, Brandy met her husband, Jarron. He was a die-hard Oakland Raiders fan, and he and Brandy began their relationship by discussing their newfound rivalry, a debate that divides their house to this day.
In March of 2012, Jarron proposed.
But in order to plan the wedding and focus on her career, though, Brandy had to let go of her dream.
“It was a really tough decision for me to leave,” she said. “I felt like I was at my peak. But at that time, I was really wanting to work on my professional career and I had gotten some opportunities at work. And I was recently engaged.”
Her initial plan was to take a year off, then return to her teammates. But in that year, Brandy found out she was pregnant.
Jaxson was just as much a surprise as the next year of her life would be.
Per the energetic toddler he grew to be, Jaxson arrived three weeks early, making Brandy’s transition back to work slower than expected. Then while pumping in the lactation room at work, Brandy noticed a lump, characteristic of the disease that plagued her family growing up.
Doctors determined the spot on her left breast was a benign cyst, but through an ultrasound, mammogram and biopsy, they discovered a malignant tumor on her right breast, one invisible to common checking procedures.
In one week, Brandy had gone from new mother to new cancer patient.
“It’s very scary how cancer does not discriminate against age,” Brandy said. “I was 30 years old, had just given birth and had a very healthy pregnancy.
“I didn’t think that I’d get it, and if I did, I didn’t think I’d get it so young.”
Brandy’s cancer was labeled Stage 0 upon discovery, but doctors found a small tumor had metastasized outside of the milk duct and into the breast tissue. She was upgraded to Stage 1 breast cancer and ultimately decided to go through chemotherapy for precautionary measures.
Once she began treatment, family members would come down from St. Louis each weekend to aid in the household, as well as her husband’s family. Her coworkers with the EPA even started a meal train to keep the family stable.
“I needed that interaction to keep my spirits up,” Brandy said. “If I was just [home] by myself, it would have allowed a lot of negative thoughts. The constant company was imperative for my recovery.”
Her mother watched Jaxson full time while Brandy’s husband tended to his wife, keeping her up on her pain medication and being her arms when she couldn’t lift hers.
“There’s never a good time to be diagnosed with any type of life-threatening disease,” Brandy said. “I do feel like I am an example of someone being diagnosed at probably the absolute worst time. I had a newborn, I had only been married for a year and a half at that time. The things that my husband and I have experienced just over the last few years could have really broken us down and drifted us apart, but it didn’t.
“I love my husband so much. He’s such a strong man.”
But for Brandy, chemotherapy’s effect on her body took on a much bigger role.
“I think all of the physical changes were very difficult for me, and it’s still a struggle,” Brandy explained. “The dance lifestyle I came from, the performance background, you have to look the part. From April to about September, I gained around 20 pounds just from the chemotherapy and the steroids. That was very heartbreaking for me because it was something out of my control.”
Brandy’s chemotherapy began on April 23, nearly three months after her life was turned upside down.
“The first thing I asked the doctor was if I was going to lose my hair,” she remembers. “Within two weeks, [my hair] literally just started shedding off. I would stand in the shower and as I would rub my hands over my head, I could just feel the hair on my hands. I would never open my eyes- I would just run my hands under the water and let it run off. Little by little, it all came out.”
Her cheerleading squad sent cards and flowers, expressed their support through social media, phone calls and texts and some made time to come visit her and the baby.
For the Chiefs cheerleaders, though, Breast Cancer Awareness month this year had taken on a whole new meaning.
Last Sunday, Brandy took part in the BCA activities and returned to Arrowhead Stadium, a place she still calls home—just on a different part of the field.
“It was very emotional for me to be standing on the other side, not as a cheerleader but as a breast cancer survivor,” Brandy said, “but I was so honored to stand out there and hold the breast cancer flag for women like me who are entering their survivorship, women who were recently diagnosed, those going through treatments or even those we’ve lost along the way.
“I just love Arrowhead. It is such a special place in my heart for so many reasons. The feeling I get being back on that field is just indescribable. I absolutely couldn’t see my life without those girls. And I just want to thank the Chiefs for the opportunity, and for loving the girl with the curly hair and the big smile.”
On Tuesday, Brandy spoke about her experience before a group of local cancer patients at a Look Good Feel Better clinic at Arrowhead Stadium.
"The thing that's really cool is that even watching her go through this battle, she never lost herself,” Judah said. “I know it wasn't easy for her, but even when I would see her, she would still show up with her big smile and in the midst of hard moments of fighting, she still had the ability to stay positive and find some of those outlooks that could keep her going.
“She's a survivor.”
Brandy plans to continue speaking with cancer patients and to become an educator, an inspiration and a model of hope.
But for now, she will continue to be who she is at her core: a mother.
“I haven’t had a day where I don’t think about cancer or the recurrence of it. I could be doing something with my son on the floor and I could get up. Just six months ago, I couldn’t get on the floor with him because I couldn’t push my body weight up to get off the floor.
“My son absolutely saved my life.”