In the fall of 2017, Brandi Bryant had a nagging cough. It seemed mild enough that it would go away on its own, but she began to worry when she also started experiencing shortness of breath.
“It was a tiny bit annoying,” Bryant, 41, of Atlanta, told TODAY. “Nothing that really bothered me or a cough so bad like bronchitis.”
Bryant suspected she had developed asthma. But, the doctors thought it might be pulmonary fibrosis, a lung disease that causes scarring, which makes it difficult to breath. She tried to research it, but her symptoms didn’t seem to fit.
“Dr. Google said it was cancer," she said. "But, it didn’t make any sense for me."
“I was exercising OK, I was able to do everything, like running after my children,” Bryant added. “Even the pulmonologist said in the first appointment, ‘This isn’t cancer ... It’s got to be something else.’”
Her doctors kept searching. They ordered a CT scan and followed up with a bronchoscopy to look directly into her airways. By this point, Bryant wondered if she had a disease like tuberculosis — or even worse.
When she returned to look at the results, she sensed the doctor seemed sober. That's when she was told she had stage 3B lung cancer.
Bryant was stunned by the news, in part because she never smoked. She calls herself the “judgiest of judges” when it comes to smokers.
“I run away when I see people smoking ... I didn’t understand why you can’t stop smoking,” she said. "To have a cancer that we have been told that its only cause is smoking, I was blown away. I was completely devastated.”
She started chemotherapy and radiation, but after her fourth round of chemotherapy she developed fluid around her heart and lungs. When doctors drained the fluid, they found it had cancer in it, too, and Bryant now had stage 4 cancer. Genomic testing revealed that it was anaplastic lymphoma kinase (ALK) positive non-small cell lung cancer. People under 55 who never smoked are most likely to have this form of cancer, according to the Lung Cancer Foundation of America.
“Going from stage 3, hoping for a cure, to stage 4 and you are incurable until you die ... It was overwhelming,” she said. “It was really, really tough.”
Looking back, Bryant had thought her symptoms seemed mild, but her ex-husband mentioned months before her diagnosis that she coughed throughout the night. It hadn’t been disrupting her sleep or how she felt, so she thought it was something small and never sought help for it.
“I was so busy and taking care of the family. It didn’t bother me,” Bryant explained. “It was not a priority. It is what we as women do.”
Breaking the news about the cancer to her four children — Amelie, 17, Karsyn, 11, Gabrielle, 9, and Kent, 5 — was tough.
“The hardest things, of course, was telling them,” she said. “The first thing my second daughter asked me was, ‘Are you going to die?’ The hardest thing was me saying that I can’t promise her. I don’t know.”
For a year and a half, Bryant has been on a therapy that targets the ALK mutation and has shrunk her tumors, meaning that, for now, there's no detectable cancer in her body.
The focus of lung cancer treatments is to stop it from spreading, according to Dr. D. Ross Camidge, director of thoracic oncology and the Joyce Zeff Chair in Lung Cancer Research at the University of Colorado Cancer Center, who did not treat Bryant.
"If the cancer has spread to other organs ... control, not cure, is the goal,” he told TODAY via email. “For some subtypes of lung cancer, like ALK, that control can be measured in years.”
Expanded treatment options like genomic testing and targeted therapy are giving lung cancer patients better chances, Camidge added.
"Lung cancer is not one disease anymore,” he said. “Dividing it into different [types], based on the cancer’s genes, has been the key to the success of personalized medicine. Long-term control is much easier when you are individualizing treatment approaches to each patient.”
For Bryant, she knows that the effects of her therapy are likely to last about three years and that treatment options are limited beyond this step. She hopes that sharing her story will help increase resources to investigate all lung cancers.
“I am hoping we can do some more research and have more than one option available,” she said.
Throughout her treatment, Bryant has continued to work and enjoy time with her family. She adopted a dog and took her children to Paris.
“I’m definitely more of a live-in-the-moment person, I realize that life is fragile for all of us," she said. "We just don’t realize until it touches you in some way, where there is some kind of tragedy or you have a diagnosis that is life limiting."
Even though her future remains unclear, she stays positive and is making memories: “The biggest thing I have done is I am present with my children."