For years she’s supported her quarterback husband through the battles in his career. Then she faced her own battle...
- Posted on Oct 1, 2007
That first week of October 2004 was tough, one of those weeks where right out of the blue your life will never be the same again.
My younger brother Casey had died in an ATV accident down at our home in Hattiesberg, Mississippi. The funeral was on Saturday. My family went through the motions in shock.
The next day we flew back to Green Bay where my husband, Brett, was quarterback for the Packers. The Packers lost their game on Monday night against the Tennessee Titans, 48 to 27.
On Wednesday I went in for my regular gynecological exam. I had my doctor check a lump I'd found during a self breast exam two months earlier. Immediately he sent me to the Van Dyke Haebler Center for women. I told myself not to worry. I had no family history of breast cancer. I was 35 and in excellent health.
Life was good and Brett and I counted our blessings. We'd had our ups and downs, but things were strong between us now and this didn't seem like something to get too worked up about.
But I was still grieving my brother's death. And this cancer scare just seemed like too much to take in. After a mammogram and ultrasound the radiologist said we needed to do a biopsy.
I felt my heart pound. "Will the biopsy tell us right away…if I have cancer?" I could barely say the word. "We'll call you tomorrow," he replied carefully.
Every time the phone rang the next day it was Brett calling from the Packers' practice facility. No matter how many times I told him I'd let him know as soon as I heard, he kept calling. "Go run some laps," I teased him. "Study your playbook, sign some autographs, throw a few footballs. Don't call me again until after 12."
The phone rang right after 12. Not Brett again, I thought. It was the doctor. "I'm sorry to tell you," he said in measured tones, "but you have breast cancer." A trembling rose from somewhere deep in my bones and a buzzing filled my ears. Cancer. Brett was on the phone in minutes. All he could say was, "Oh, God."
It seemed like Brett and I had known each other forever, and we almost had. We grew up together in the small Mississippi town of Kiln. We went to the same school through 12th grade. I remembered his cute blond cowlick and the way he sat in the bleachers in high school with the laces of his high-top sneakers untied.
We got to know each other playing two-on-two basketball—I was just as much a jock as he was. One day he called me up and I could hear a lot of voices in the background saying, "Ask her, ask her." Finally he drawled out, "Will you go with me?"
We were officially a couple, but most of what we did together was sports. We played catch on our dates and for a present he bought me a glove and a catcher's mitt. When his dad saw Brett firing fastballs at me, he came running out of the house. "Boy," he said, "you can't throw that hard to a girl!" It didn't stop Brett. Or me, for that matter.
I loved him, even if he wasn't the most romantic guy. On the way to our senior prom he drove off with his wallet on the top of his car so he couldn't even pay for our dinner. In college he courted me with a plastic red rose—following a spat when I wouldn't speak to him for a month.
Then he gave me a second red rose the next date. The third one appeared in his car shortly thereafter. "I guess this is the last one," I said, inspecting it. "Why do you say that?" he asked. "Because the tag on it says three for ninety-nine cents."
Brett got drafted from the University of Southern Mississippi to Atlanta, then traded to Green Bay. After years of soul-searching I followed him up there, only to find out that the quiet, kind Brett I knew and loved had become a loud, rough party animal.
For the first time I saw a mean streak in him and I didn't know where it had come from. He had mood swings that he'd never had before. He disappeared sometimes without even telling me where he was going.
One day I discovered a plastic bag filled with white pills. Painkillers. He was horribly addicted to painkillers, partly as a result of all the injuries he played with. We got through that. He went to The Menninger Clinic and got help. We went through counseling together and he was once again the best friend I'd ever had—and by now my husband. I prayed for him through countless games, praying he'd make it through without an injury.
There were wonderful thrilling trips to the Super Bowl and tragic bittersweet moments like the night he played against the Oakland Raiders right after his dad's death, making the game a tribute to his father. That night he threw for a total of 399 yards and four touchdowns…with tears in his eyes.
All that confidence and strength evaporated when I got the cancer diagnosis. I'd never seen Brett so shaken up. He was pale and in shock. We hugged for a long time and then Brett studied the breast cancer material I'd been given as though it were a playbook. Which, in a way, it was.
I told our two daughters, Brittany, 15, and five-year-old Breleigh. "I'll be okay," I reassured them. My cancer was stage II, considered early, and the doctors felt they could treat it with a lumpectomy, not a mastectomy. I went to New York for surgery and Brett called constantly (it was mid-season). "Don't worry about anything," he said. "Just be strong and get through it." "Pray for me," I urged.
The surgical team was confident, but they insisted on four rounds of chemo and six weeks of radiation. How bad could that be? I wondered. The first round of chemo was right before Thanksgiving. I'd never felt so sick in my life. It was like the worst flu you can imagine. I'd promised to make cornbread dressing for the holiday dinner we'd have with friends. What usually took about 30 minutes took all day.
Losing my hair was painful too, more than I would have thought. In the morning my white cotton pillowcase looked like it had been transformed into black satin—covered in hair. I didn't want to have patches of bald spots. I told my hairdresser to shave my head. I bought wigs and Packers knit caps to wear.
Once, Breleigh came into the bathroom after I had taken my shower. Her eyes locked on my bald head. Finally she said, "Mommy, your hair looks really pretty."
"Thanks, sweetie," I said, "but I know it doesn't." We both giggled.
Eventually both Brittany and Breleigh cut their hair off to show support. Brett got into the act too. The night he came home with his hair totally shaved, I was overcome.
Cancer can make you feel so alone. Love and support are the only antidotes. Brett used his experience getting off painkillers to share his strength with me. It wasn't my strength or Brett's. It was our strength.
Brett went public with my cancer. I started receiving hundreds of letters. The prayers gave me strength on days when all my energy was spent. Each woman in my Bible study picked a Bible verse to encourage me, and an artist arranged them around the verse from Philippians: "I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me."
At night, when I was too weak to do anything, I sat on the chair with the ottoman in the living room—Brett's chair, we call it—and answered all those letters. Encouraging others with cancer made me feel better.
In mid-May, when I had just a bit of hair on my head, I drove to a broadcast station to record what I thought was a radio spot for breast cancer awareness. "No, Deanna," I was told. "It's TV." Not only that, they wanted to take a picture of me for a poster. Without a wig. No way. I felt so vulnerable. But I remembered all the people who'd written to me. Okay Lord. If this helps one person get through what I've been through, then sure. Help me through it.
In the spring I got a clean bill of health. Brett was ecstatic. So were the girls. But life will never be quite the same for all of us. Cancer changes you. It might sound trite, but Brett and I both have a renewed sense of how precious life is, how blessed we are. It's as if even the everyday things are vivid.
No matter how often we speak to each other during the day, we always say "I love you." We've both become big note writers and card senders, encouraging each other. Just the other day I discovered a letter Brett had hidden in my vanity drawer when he went off to training camp.
God has given us strength to do more than we ever thought possible and he's knitted us into the partners he knew we could be. Not long ago we were at Disney World with a group from Breleigh's cheer squad.
Suddenly I noticed Brett pulling a pink blossom from a flower bed, giving it to Breleigh. Then he said with a smile in front of the group, "Give this to your mother and tell her how much I love her."
I thought of the boy with his three-for-ninety-nine-cents roses, and gave thanks for who we were now. Cancer and the trials we've faced could have driven us apart. By God's grace we were driven toward each other—for support, for strength, for love.
This story first appeared in the October 2007 issue of Guideposts magazine.