It was halftime, and pink and white balloons floated above Arrowhead Stadium, filling the sky with hope.
Regardless of who we were rooting for at this Chiefs game a couple of Sundays ago, we were all clapping for the same cause: breast cancer survivors. The cheerleaders, in their special pink gear, did a routine honoring them. Brandy Reed knows every dip, pop and step of this October tradition. But this year, she did not perform.
The former Chiefs cheerleader was on the field as a survivor. It had only been a month since her last chemotherapy treatment.
“I cried,” she says later, sitting on the floor with her year-old son in their Northland home. “I know the moves. I’ve performed them in honor of my grandmother, my aunt, my mother. But this year it was an awakening to be on the other side.”
This time of year, Breast Cancer Awareness Month, we point to the statistics: More then 200,000 women are diagnosed with breast cancer each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control. But despite her family history, Brandy didn’t think she’d be here. Not at 31.
“My mom has been cancer-free for nine years,” Brandy says. “I was in college when she was diagnosed. I was nervous and scared and young. I was focused on her being healthy because my dad passed from lung cancer when I was 15. I didn’t want to lose another parent. I know it sounds naive, but I didn’t think about how it would affect my health. If anything, I thought maybe it’s a chance when I’m older. But not now, not as a healthy and vibrant new mom. I thought I was invincible.”
Through it all, not only have her husband, her mother and other relatives stood by her side, but her cheer sisters as well. They are pros at rooting for their team. And they defy every catty, dumb-girl image.
“I love what the girls stand for,” Brandy says. “Intelligence, hard work, balance, fitness, education. We are not a stereotype. We have careers off the field. And we have camaraderie. Those women molded me into the woman I am today.”
Brandy Reed, on her cheer sisters
Outside of my actual family, the girls were my rocks. They came to sit with me at chemo, they sent texts, they cried with with me.
Brandy joined the team in 2010 and cheered for three seasons.
“I cheered in high school. I danced in college. When I moved here after I graduated from the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff, I didn’t have any friends or family. I’m from St. Louis. But I loved dancing so I went out to join the Chiefs cheerleaders. I auditioned twice before I finally made it. On my third try, I made the team and lifelong friends.”
A couple of seasons ago, she took some time off the field to focus on her wedding. And when she was ready to go back in uniform, she found out she was pregnant. Her new strategy: After the birth of her baby boy she would gear up for a comeback.
Her goal to once again rock Arrowhead was halted in January.
When their son Jaxson was 4 months old, she returned to her job as a life scientist for the Environmental Protection Agency. While pumping milk in the lactation room of her Lenexa office, she noticed something. A lump.
She thought it was nothing — maybe something related to breast feeding. But she went to see her doctor anyway. Because of her family history, she was sent to a specialist. A biopsy found the cyst to be benign. But there was something on her right breast. An ultrasound confirmed she was stage zero DCIS (ductal carcinoma in situ). Abnormal cells in the lining of the milk duct. Non-invasive cancer.
“In that situation, it was the best possible news,” Brandy says. “I thought they were going to tell me I was dying.”
The answer, in her case: a bilateral mastectomy. She would have her breasts removed in March. Her cheer sisters wore pink on surgery day and posted pictures to support her.
“I wasn’t scared,” she says. “The hardest part was knowing I couldn’t lift my son for eight weeks. But we defined the problem, we found a solution and I was ready to get to the finish line if it meant helping increase the chances of seeing my son graduate from college one day.”
It wasn’t that simple. Post-surgery, results showed a small tumor just outside of her milk ducts. The cancer had metastasized. She was now stage one. The new move: chemotherapy.
“I was more scared of chemo than I was of the surgery,” she says. “But I made a promise to my husband. I told him I would never give up, and I needed to honor my husband. And I had a wonderful childhood and have an awesome relationship with my mother. I knew I needed to be here for my son.”
In April, she began weekly chemo treatments. To help protect her chances of future pregnancy, she was given medication that temporarily sent her into menopause. The process was grueling.
Her husband, Jarron Reed, says it was a lesson in faith and perseverance.
“She kept it strong and balanced, and it inspired me,” he says. “I know she is going to continue to fight, and God has everything under control. It wasn’t a challenge. It made me a better husband. I knew I was going to do whatever I could do to be there for my family.”
Her football family rallied behind her, too.
“Outside of my actual family, the girls were my rocks,” she says. “They came to sit with me at chemo, they sent texts, they cried with with me. Every week on treatment day I heard from them. And they made sure my birthday was special when I didn’t want to celebrate.”
But she reminded herself to enjoy every moment.
“I took so many pictures and went out and saw friends and spent time with my husband,” she says. “I wanted to make as many memories as possible and have pictures with Jaxson. No one is promised tomorrow. I don’t want to live with those regrets.”
And at the Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure in September, days after her final chemo treatment and just as she was celebrating her son’s first birthday, the cheerleaders were there in full support. Brandy, her husband and their baby walked the 5K. Friends, family and cheerleaders roared with support as she crossed the finish line at Worlds of Fun. I handed her a rose.
But it’s not always pink balloons and smiling in the face of adversity. Yes, she’s cancer-free and thankful. But it’s been a hard year. She went through menopause. Even now, she has hot flashes. So much so that when she turns on the fan, her 1-year-old asks, “Hot?”
For the next 10 years, she will be on Tamoxifen to help prevent the recurrence of breast cancer. Anxiety comes with every headache, pain and pinch. It’s impossible to watch TV without seeing a cancer treatment commercial. She sometimes wonders, “Is it back?”
But she doesn’t let it keep her down for long. A lesson she learned as a Chiefs cheerleader always helps her stand up again.
“We learned that there are two things you can do in life,” Brandy says. “You can turn negatives into a positive or you can go up in flames. My director used to ask us, ‘If there is a picture of a sunset and there is trash in the background, are you going to look at the beautiful sun or the trash? You look at the sun.’
“I’ve been on a mental battle. I fight it every day. It’s not easy to stay positive, to not think about the worst possible scenario. But it’s not about my plan. It’s God’s plan. And you work hard to stay positive. When you know better, you do better.”
Stephanie Judah, the Chiefs’ cheerleaders director, is the woman who taught Brandy that mantra she holds so dearly.
“Brandy has always been known for her vivacious personality and her giant smile,” Stephanie says. “Everything she did on her team, it was with her huge heart shining through, and her impact touched people everywhere she went. Watching her go through her battle, what had to be the hardest thing she ever went through, with grace and spirit and her huge smile — it’s amazing.
“Even though she’s told me she didn’t feel like herself, to us she never lost the spirit of who she is. And I think that is a big part of being a survivor, never giving up that battle with all of your heart and soul. She is a special one.”
Next spring Brandy will participate in Bra Couture KC (formerly known as Art Bra KC) as the Chiefs representative to raise breast cancer awareness.
“She was a great model on the field, and as an alum and survivor, she is still a great role model,” Stephanie says. “She has brought a whole new meaning to who we strive to be. It’s been an eye-opener for my current cheerleaders. Breast cancer hits at all ages, not just older people and not even just women.”
For Brandy, it’s about encouraging people to be vigilant about their health.
“I’m still the old Brandy. But I am forever changed. And it’s important to share my story. It’s important to raise awareness for people who are like me, who might think they are invincible. It’s important to teach young girls to do self-checks, to get follow-up exams when they think something is wrong. It’s therapeutic to talk about it. It allows me to face it.”
For inspiration, she looks to Robin Roberts, the “Good Morning America” co-anchor who beat breast cancer.
“Not a day goes by that I don’t think about it,” Brandy says. “But Robin Roberts says that day will come. I look forward to it.”
Pom-poms in the air for Brandy.