Multi-time cancer survivor shares her cancer and life journey
When she was a little girl, Siteman patient Sister Barbara Brunsmann couldn’t imagine joining a religious order. Life as a sister in the Catholic Church sounded dull and confining.
“I was never going to be a sister, because they can’t do a lot,” she remembers thinking as she observed the School Sisters of Notre Dame, who ran her school and never seemed to do anything exciting.
But after unexpectedly feeling the call in high school and joining the School Sisters herself after graduation, Brunsmann would realize how much sisters can do and how risky, and sometimes dangerous, their lives can be. Her career in the order has seen her suffer from malnutrition in Ghana and flee civil unrest in Sierra Leone.
“I was in West Africa in a civil war and got shot at, so that’s interesting,” Brunsmann said.
Yet gunshots from guerilla fighters aren’t the greatest threat that Brunsmann has faced during her 50 years with the School Sisters. She would also discover that sisters can survive cancer – three times, in fact. Over the past 20 years, Brunsmann has persevered through Hodgkin’s lymphoma, non-Hodgkins lymphoma, and tongue cancer. And rather than “not doing a lot” as she underwent her treatments, she has kept teaching, kept fit, and kept her faith.
The School Sisters, as one could guess from their name, are teachers: they operate schools and educate children in the United States and around the world. Brunsmann has taught a variety of subjects across the curriculum, concentrating especially in physical education, health, and special education. One of her earliest assignments as a sister was to teach at a boarding school for special needs children in north St. Louis City.
While Brunsmann found the work rewarding – not least because it allowed her to “be mom” to children who lacked stable families of their own – the role still brought its share of risks. On one occasion, a boy sprained both her wrists while she was trying to restrain him during an outburst.
Brunsmann’s passion for teaching and for helping disadvantaged children would later see her travel to Sierra Leone in August of 1994 to teach at a mission school, where she soon found herself caught up in the country’s ongoing civil war. By late October of 1994, she says the violence was approaching the town where the school compound was located. She kept gas in the car.
The war finally arrived at the school on November 7, 1994. Brunsmann says she awoke from a nap that day to screams that the rebels were coming. She immediately roused her fellow sisters to get ready to leave and started packing her suitcase. Before long, she could hear gunfire: first single shots, then the extended report of AK-47s, and, finally, the sound of rocket-propelled grenades.
With the rebels closing in, Brunsmann says she herded the remaining people at the school – about 10 in all – into a Toyota Land Cruiser and drove everyone to safety in another village. The car was almost shot multiple times. At one point, a man raised his AK-47 to shoot at them – “Oh my Jesus, help us now,” Brunsmann said while recounting the event – only to be restrained by one of his comrades, who told him, “They are sisters.”
Brunsmann was teaching at another mission school in Ghana when her health first began to fail. In July of 1999, she noticed that she was losing weight without trying, and her hair was falling out. A local nurse took a blood sample and found that her blood “looked funny.”
“I was tireder, and tireder, and tireder,” Brunsmann said. “I was severely malnourished.”
Brunsmann’s fellow sisters immediately knew something was wrong when she returned to the United States to seek medical treatment. Usually a “very good talker,” she was now uncharacteristically quiet.
“We knew you were sick when you came home because you didn’t talk,” Brunsmann said they told her.
As it turned out, Brunsmann was ill, not just with one disease but with two. On November 22, 1999, she was diagnosed with celiac disease, which seemed to explain her weight loss and fatigue. But then, a CT scan taken in December found non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma ranging from her lower abdomen into her lungs.
Having lived in north St. Louis before her years in Africa, Brunsmann sought care at Christian Hospital. She was referred to Timothy Rearden, MD, now a Washington University medical oncologist. Rearden has managed Brunsmann’s care ever since, seeing her through treatments that have grown increasingly sophisticated over the years.
But when Brunsmann was first diagnosed, chemotherapy was often highly toxic and aggressive.
“My thought was, ‘I’m not going to take any chemo because it’s nasty,’” she said.
And she was right: it was nasty. After her first treatment, Brunsmann says she was in constant, terrible pain. The side effects of the chemotherapy were compounded because she had been so malnourished, between living in Africa and struggling with celiac disease unknowingly. After her first treatment, she refused to continue.
Rearden, however, was persistent, Brunsmann says. Every day, he argued with her about continuing her treatments, and even reached out to one of her friends, a physician in north St. Louis, to see if she could convince her to change her mind.
Brunsmann says she finally caved and agreed to return to chemotherapy. Her sessions lasted for another few months, and she convalesced until October, under the care of her sister, Sharon – a nurse – and her brother.
After recovering from her treatments, Brunsmann returned to teaching, this time at a school for under-privileged girls. She didn’t know that she was only enjoying a brief period of respite between two different cancers.
In 2002, a CT scan revealed an abnormality in Brunsmann’s upper body. She was sent to Barnes-Jewish Hospital for a PET scan, which found Hodgkin lymphoma in her neck. It’s incredibly rare for patients to develop both Hodgkin and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, and Rearden was determined to learn why this had happened to her. Brunsmann’s celiac disease, he discovered, may have been a contributing factor.
“Dr. Rearden called the top specialists in the country, and that’s when a doctor told him celiac and lymphoma were like this,” Brunsmann said, crossing her fingers.
Rearden prescribed another round of chemotherapy. This time, however, Brunsmann knew what she was facing.
“The first was the worst, so it didn’t bother me,” she said. “I took it in stride.”
She had a similarly good-humored attitude when she was diagnosed with tongue cancer in 2016.
“The doctor keeps saying, that’s unusual, and I say, ‘that’s my middle name,’” she said.
She has high praise for the care she has received from Rearden.
“You’re a real person that he learns from and keeps going,” she said, describing how Rearden has gone on to diagnose several more lymphoma patients with celiac disease after handling her case.
Brunsmann’s three bouts with cancer were tough on her body. Though Rearden worked to protect her from the worst effects of the chemotherapy, she still suffered a loss of lung function and congestive heart failure. Recently, she underwent an operation to replace her aortic valve.
Brunsmann credits her regular physical fitness routine with keeping her on her feet. Back in 2001, shortly after surviving non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, she began riding her bike to the school where she was teaching. The trip was 6 miles both ways, and it helped Brunsmann recover her strength after her first course of chemotherapy.
Since then, Brunsmann has continued to make fitness a priority.
“I taught myself to do push-ups, real ones, at 61 or 62. I was walking 4 to 6 miles every day, until my aortic valve kept getting worse and worse,” she said.
Yet even the aortic valve replacement didn’t slow her down much – less than two weeks after the procedure, she was already walking a mile and a half in the mornings.
Brunsmann also hasn’t hesitated to lean on others for support. As a religious sister, she freely asks people to pray for her and often taps into the global network of School Sisters of Notre Dame for spiritual help.
“It’s the other people who help us to not be depressed – to call us to be better,” she said.
Today, 20 years after her first cancer diagnosis, Brunsmann teaches PE and sometimes health education at Ste. Genevieve Du Bois of the Woods in west St. Louis County. She has no plans to stop.
“I’ve got more children to teach, more things to do,” she said.