Carolee Carmello’s gorgeous voice filled the studio with the words Kathy Brinkman had written about herself: “No one is promised tomorrow… That is the reason to live for today.”
Brinkman came to the TODAY show Thursday not just to be serenaded, but to share her inspirational life as part of Kathie Lee Gifford’s and Hoda Kotb’s “Everyone Has a Story” series. She was already armed with tissues to soak up the tears that she knew were inevitable. But there was no sadness in her eyes — only joy at being given another day to enjoy, another experience to drink up.
And she owes it all to a cancer that saved her life.
A blessing in disguise
“God bless breast cancer,” Brinkman told Gifford and Kotb. She admits it’s a sentiment she never would have felt possible before January 2005, when the 66-year-old Arlington, Ohio, woman went in for routine mammogram.
The test revealed a small, cancerous lump — the earliest stage of breast cancer.
Brinkman thought the solution would be “easy,” she wrote in her e-mail to TODAY. “Have a lumpectomy, some radiation, and be cured.”
But before the lumpectomy, her doctors ordered a number of routine tests, including a chest X-ray, which revealed a mass in her lungs. Further tests confirmed that Brinkman had stage 4 lung cancer that had spread to her liver and lymph nodes.
Brinkman had no symptoms — no cough, no dramatic weight loss, no loss of energy — but she was close to death. Even with treatment, her prognosis was so bleak that her oncologist told her not to worry about the breast cancer because she probably wouldn’t live long enough for it to be a factor.
That was 3 ½ years ago.
“No one thought I would live very long … but I fooled them,” Brinkman said with a bright smile.
She underwent a special regimen of chemotherapy that cuts off the nutrient supply to the cancer. The mass in her lungs is undetectable, but she continues to undergo chemotherapy twice a month to attack lingering malignancies in her liver.
When it was clear Brinkman would live long enough to worry about the breast cancer, she had a mastectomy.
“People I come in contact with tell me that my attitude is terrific,” she wrote in her email to the contest. “All I know is that although I would never wish cancer on anyone, it has been a sort of an odd blessing for me. The other patients I have met during chemo are the most wonderful people … We don't sweat the small stuff anymore.”
Brinkman, who came to New York with Sara Bryant, her best friend since the second grade, said she owes a lot to her husband, her two children and grandchildren, and her sisters, all of whom have given her support as she battled cancer.
Because of a serious traffic accident in 2000, Brinkman already knew that life doesn’t come with guarantees. Her brush with death from cancer has confirmed her belief that every day should be lived as if it were the last.
Broadway star Carolee Carmello serenaded Kathy Brinkman for “Everyone Has a Story.”
1PfalsefalseSeize the day
“No one is promised tomorrow,” Brinkman wrote to TODAY. “We need to fill our days with hugs and lots of laughter.”
Gifford used that line as the title of the song she wrote for Brinkman. Carmello, who is starring on Broadway in “Mamma Mia!” performed it with passion.
“No one is promised tomorrow,” Carmello sang. “Where is it written that life will be fair? ... Today is the present, so open the gift. Time is too fleeting and time is too swift.”
“What a gift!” Brinkman said when the song was over. “What a gift!”
But there was one more surprise for Brinkman. She and her husband had had to cancel a trip to Florida when she was diagnosed with lung cancer, so Kotb and Gifford made up for it with a five-night luxury vacation in Hawaii.
A lei was draped over Brinkman’s shoulders, and the hosts passed out mai tais for everyone.
“This is a wonderful series,” Brinkman told Gifford and Kotb as they raised their glasses in a toast. “Thank you for doing it. You’re bringing so much inspiration and hope to everyone who watches this.”