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Army Veteran Healthy After Ewing Sarcoma

American Cancer Society logo American Cancer Society 11/8/2019

a close up of a woman © 2019 William Pender, 3b Photography Brandi Benson spent most of the fall and winter of 2008 working out with her Army unit in Iraq, where she was deployed after basic training. She felt tired all the time but that was no surprise considering her tough exercise regimen. In January, she felt a sharp pain in her groin and upper left leg. She figured she’d pulled a muscle and continued her demanding routine. She wanted rest and was looking forward to the promise of 2 days off if she aced an upcoming physical test.

Then she noticed a large lump on her leg and went to the medic– mostly because she hoped it could be an excuse to get a few days of sick leave. The medic sent Benson to Baghdad for a CT scan, and she learned she had a tumor, but not what kind. She wouldn’t find out until weeks later that it was Ewing sarcoma, an aggressive type of cancer.

Things began moving very quickly for Benson after the tumor was found. She was flown to a hospital in Germany, and then to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Washington, DC for treatment. She knew she had a tumor, but she still didn’t understand the seriousness of her condition.

“I was so naïve,” said Benson. “I never thought it was cancer. I thought I had pulled a muscle; cancer never crossed my mind. My whole motive was to get more sleep.”

Benson never returned to Iraq or saw her unit again.

 

What is Ewing sarcoma?

The Ewing family of tumors is a group of cancers that start in the bones or nearby soft tissues. Benson was 24 when she was diagnosed, but most of the time people with Ewing tumors are teenagers. Even then, it doesn’t happen very often. Only about 200 children and teens are diagnosed with Ewing tumors in the US each year. Benson was diagnosed with Ewing sarcoma stage IB. She was lucky that the tumor grew where she noticed it before it spread to someplace else in her body.

When Benson first noticed the lump on her leg it was the size of an orange. A month later, it had grown to the size of a watermelon. She couldn’t extend her leg or feel her foot. Her treatment included chemotherapy, surgery to remove the tumor, then more chemotherapy.

Getting through treatment physically

The surgeons who treated Benson said they’d try to save her leg but didn’t promise.

“It was a 13-hour surgery. When I woke up, I checked to see if my leg was still there. I was thinking, ‘Please I would like to wake up with my leg,’” said Benson.  “I touched my leg. It was numb and I couldn’t feel it, so I thought, ‘It’s not there.’ I looked and there it was. I went back to sleep.”

Along with the tumor, they’d removed 5 pounds of muscle from her thigh including all of her adductor muscles. Benson had to learn how to walk again and limped for a long time. She still can’t run, and her leg remains weak. She says it feels like she’s carrying a large weight on her leg and she has to concentrate while walking so it doesn’t drag.

She guesses she had well over 100 chemotherapy treatments. Side effects included nausea and vomiting, trouble sleeping, speech problems, and hair loss. She also experienced a rare side effect of temporary hallucinations. In addition, she had hormone therapy treatment to preserve her fertility in case she wants to have children some day. The hormones threw her into menopause and gave her extreme hot flashes.

Benson’s mother quit her job in Texas to move into the hospital with her. The Army gave Benson’s mom a stipend as a non-medical attendant. After Benson finished treatment in November 2009, her mother lived with her for the next 2 years.

Getting through treatment emotionally

Doctors had told Benson she did not have a good chance of survival. Physically, she was sick and exhausted. Emotionally, she became depressed. But she was determined to do whatever she could to live.

She says, “I am always asked how I did it, how did I muster up the strength to live when everyone around me thought I would die. Truth be told, I am not too sure how I did it either. I mean, I had the odds against me pretty badly, but something inside would not allow me to give up.” She says:

  • She talked to her cancer care team about her feelings of depression and they prescribed medication.
  • She laughed when she could. “My mother and I laughed because my hair was crazy. I kept telling myself this was a crazy experiment.”
  • She took control of her health care. “I understood the diagnosis but wanted nothing to do with the prognosis. While I was sick, I knew I had to make some mindful decisions and make them quickly. You have the last say-so.”
  • She gave herself reasons to feel positive. For example, watching her nephew grow up and buying a new car. “I was deathly ill, and the saleswoman did not want to sell me the car, but I convinced her that I needed this car to look forward to and to give myself a sense of responsibility that would keep me alive. When I drove home in my new car, I kept saying to myself, ‘I have a new car now and I have to be alive to make this car payment.’”

Making healthy changes

Benson finished treatment in November 2009. After she recovered from treatment, she was stationed at Fort Meade in Maryland, then Fort Stewart in Georgia. The weakness in her leg interfered with her ability to train, and she was medically discharged in 2013.

The GI Bill helped Benson pay for graduate school, and in 2015 she earned her master’s degree in writing from Savannah College of Art and Design. Today she owns her own company in resume and employment services. And she’s written a book called The Enemy Inside Me.

She says she has a new outlook on life since her diagnosis and treatment. “I’m trying to be more optimistic and positive, more aware of what I’m giving out,” she says.

She’s also trying to eat better -- much less red meat and refined sugar and more vegetables and fish.

“Don’t give up on yourself,” she said. “Life is full of ups and downs and you don’t have to quit. Why can’t you be that miracle that everybody talking about?”

Reviewed by:

The American Cancer Society medical and editorial content team

Our team is made up of doctors and oncology certified nurses with deep knowledge of cancer care as well as journalists, editors, and translators with extensive experience in medical writing.

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