Jeffrey Brown, 18, of Ypsilanti overcame brain cancer. He graduated this spring, and plans to attend the University of Michigan in the fall. Jeffrey hopes to become a pediatric oncologist one day, helping other kids fight cancer. Kristen Jordan Shamus/Detroit Free Press
Jeffrey Brown, 18, of Ypsilanti plans to attend the University of Michigan in the fall to study to become a doctor. He’d like to specialize in pediatric oncology to help other kids beat cancer the way he did.(Photo: Kristen Jordan Shamus/Detroit Free Press)Buy Photo
Losing was never an option.Jeffrey Browns family made that clear from the start.
The boy from Ypsilanti was given just 50/50 odds of survivalwhen doctors diagnosed him with stage 4 brain cancer at age 13.
Yet the Browns dadChristopher; momMichelle; and siblings Kamilah, Elena, Benand Serena never allowed doubt or negative thoughts to creep into their prayerful approach to his treatment for brain cancer because, they decided, Jeffrey wasnt done living.
“Our whole family just made a choice to believe that I was going to be healed,” Jeffrey said. “And that was it. They were stronger than my circumstance.Maybe they had their doubts, but if they did, they didn’t show it.”
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The youngest of Michelle and Christopher Brown’sfive children, Jeffrey waswrapping up his eighth grade year at Canton Charter Academy in May 2013 when he starting havingsymptoms that suggested something was wrong.
He shrugged off the nosebleeds that started a couple months earlier. Doctors thought perhaps a gastrointestinal problem like acid refluxwas causing his frequent vomitingor that he was training too hard and overexerting himself as a cross-country runner.
But when Jeffrey started exhibiting symptoms ofnystagmus an eye condition that causes uncontrolled repetitive eye movements his mom, a physical therapist,knew something more serious might beinvolved.
It wasn’t long before doctorsdiscovered several B-cell CNS lymphoma tumors, rare in children, were growing in his brain, causing the nystagmus, along with balance and vision problems and his other symptoms.
Jeffrey Brown gets board games a Lego set and Nerf gun in December 2013 at C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, where he underwent chemotherapy for brain cancer. Here, he’s photographed with an unknown nurse who delivered the Christmas gifts.(Photo: Family photo)
B-cell lymphomas account for about6% to 8% of all pediatric cancers, said Dr. Rajen Mody, who was on Jeffrey’s treatment team at C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.
Most cases of that particular type of cancer occur in other parts of the body, he said, such aslymph nodes in the neck or chest, abdomen or spleen.
“It very rarely occurs only in the central nervous system of the brain area of a child where theres nothing else anywhere,” said Dr.Mody, who is a pediatric oncologist at Mott. “This is usually seen in adults in their fifth decade who have some immunodeficiency or HIV, or the immune system doesnt work very well.
Dr. Rajen Mody, a pediatric oncologist at the C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.(Photo: University of Michigan)
“To see that in someone like Jeff, who is otherwise a healthy eighth-grader, it was very unusual.”
Pediatric lymphomas, Mody said, tend to be more aggressive, which meant that his treatment would have to be aggressive, too.
“Instead of a three- or four-drug combination, we use a six- or seven-drug combination, and the regimens are usually a little more aggressive,” he said.”Older adults usually dont tolerate that kind of chemo intensity.
“And as somebody who had it in the central nervous system, thats considered high risk. He got an eight-month treatment.”
Jeffreyunderwenta craniotomyand a lumbar puncture. Aport was installed in his chest for chemotherapy, and another port, called an ommaya, was surgically implanted in his skull.
“That was when I felt the most scared,” he said. He was in pain and was beginning to feel sorry for himself.
“I’m crying. I’m despairing, and I say, ‘Dad, I don’t know if I can do this,’ ” Jeffrey recalled. “My dad looks at me and he says, ‘Yes, you can. We’re going to beat this.’ And I said, “How can you be this strong?’ He said, ‘Because I have to be.’ ”
Christopher Brown remembers that moment, too, and said he was convinced that the power of prayer and relentless positivity could have an impact on the outcome of his son’s treatment.
“I remember that day very distinctly,” Brown said, knowing that giving the right response was important becausehis son would hold on to his words throughout the course of his treatment.
“It most definitely made a difference,” Brown said. “It was obvious that he was fearful. Of course he was fearful and was thinking about what was in store for him, andin theend,wouldhe be able to come through it.
“The attitude was we win. Period. Don’t let anyone tell you anything else. And it’s not because we were special. It’s because we had no other option. …I hung onto that like a hobo with a hot dog, and would not allow anybody to linger off that attitude, that faith that we needed.”
Overcome it, Jeffrey did.
He lost all his hair and a lot of weight, too. The chemo made him sick. Jeffrey spent most of the summer of 2013 weak and in the hospital.
Friends visited often, doctors and nurses on staff were encouraging, and he drewsupport from his church, Harvest Christian Church in Detroit, and other organizations.
“I remember after they injected me (with chemo), and I felt really bad,” Jeffrey said. “I threw up into one of those basins, and 30 seconds later, my friends C.J. Colliver and Michael Maes came in. They were visiting me that day. And I went from just kind of broken feeling and dispirited to like, ‘Oh! Theyre here! Lets go.’ You just turn on a different part of yourself thats like, ‘Yay! Im so happy my friends are here, feeling sick doesnt even matter.’
Jeffrey Brown said the support of close friends like Jonah Stephens (left) and Tyler Ramer (right), helped him get through the hardest days of his cancer treatments.(Photo: Family photo)
“And we had a blast. When youre with your friends, you can joke about anything.”
By fall of 2013, he was strong enough to start high school at Father Gabriel Richard High School in Ann Arbor. He was still undergoing outpatient chemo, but for the first time in months, he had the stamina to get through a full school day.
Mody remembers being impressed with Jeffrey, who was starting at a new school while continuing chemotherapy.
“Sometimes patients are very angry about things,” he said. “Theyre like, ‘Why me? Why do I have to lose my hair? I have to go to high school and I dont have any hair. I look different.’
“But not him. Jeff, he was very calm throughout, and I think he really made our life easy. And he always had a positive attitude. … We see that many times with kids his age, they are such resilient kids, and they have such a good attitude towardit. He did all his schooling through this, and he would never complain. He was a real trouper.”
Spending time with friends helped Jeffrey Brown get through his often grueling chemotherapy treatments. Among those who were his biggest supporters were Tyler Ramer, Tyler Harris, C.J. Colliver, Omari Beauregard, Michael Maes, and Jonah Stephens.(Photo: Family photo)
Although Mody said there isn’t a way to quantify how much an upbeat perspective affects the outcome of cancer treatment, he said itsurely doesn’t hurt.
“Having a positive spiritand doing things like relaxation, yoga, listening to music, and thinking positively does release certain chemicals in your brain called endorphins, and it really helps your immune system and your mood, your physiology, your heart and other organs,” Mody said.”It does play a rolein at least in handling chemo well. It helps. I’m not sure how much of a role it plays in chemotherapy, but really, anything that helps the immune system will help in killing the cancer cells.”
Jeffrey’s time at Mott not only helped to save his life, but it also shaped the direction it would take.
“When I was in the hospital, I was always super curious, talking to the doctors about all the medical stuff, health science things, learning about the chemo and how it kills any fast-growing cells,” Jeffrey said.
“Ithought it was so interesting. All the doctors were passionate about their work, but they were also compassionate. And I was inspired by what they did. I thought, if I became a pediatric oncologist, Ican be empathetic because I experienced it, too. That experience convinced me I wanted to become a physician.”
Jeffrey took a biology class his freshman year at Richard that reinforced that idea.
“He loved freshman honors biology,” said his mother, Michelle Brown.” You could tell by second semester, when they learned about genes and DNA and how you can turn off certain DNA attributes to manifest or not manifest, and he was really into that. We have so much cancer in our family, he was really interested.
“By junior year… he was saying, My dream is to be a pediatric oncologist on the Mott floor where I got treated.”
Jeffrey took a big step in that direction late last month, tossing hisemerald green cap high into the air as he received his high school diploma.
Jeffrey Brown is surrounded by his family at his graduation from Father Gabriel Richard High School in Ann Arbor on May 25, 2017 at Hill Auditorium. From left are Ember Fe Brown, Kamilah Brown, Christopher Brown, Serena Brown, Ben Brown, Jeffrey Brown, Michelle Brown, Fe Gutierrez, and Elena Brown.(Photo: Jamil Hague)
He’s enrolled at the University of Michigan for fall classes, where he hopes to study to become a doctor like the many who cared for him at Mott.
The prognosis for his health, Mody said, is good.
“He had an aggressive form of lymphoma, and I think if it doesnt come back in the first three tofour years, they usually do not come back,” he said. “We just completed four years, so I am very optimistic that we have cured his lymphoma.”
Brown said Jeffrey still struggles with nystagmusand has difficulty at times reading and typing. But the problem isn’t too debilitating to find ways around it, like learning to type without looking at the keyboard.
She has no doubt that he will.
Jeffrey Brown, 18, of Ypsilanti has big plans for the future. The cancer survivor hopes to one day become a pediatric oncologist himself, so he can help kids like him overcome life-threatening illnesses.(Photo: Kristen Jordan Shamus/Detroit Free Press)
His father said Jeffrey’s cancer experience pushed him to rely on his faith, to muster strength whenhe’s weakand to never lose gratitude for thegift of life.
“It’s a great story of being rescued, and then being freed to be of great service to others in need around him,” Christopher Brown said.”To me, it’s a story that’s unfolding now and it’s going to be amazing to see what happens next.
“How does the Lord use him to be a blessing? I think what I have appreciated is I don’t see Jeff as having lost sight of that. I think he still carries with him the reality that he’s been given the opportunity to beat death, and it wasn’tjust for the heck of it. There’s a purpose for that. It’s amazing to watch him now.”
Contact Kristen Jordan Shamus: 313-222-5997 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @kristenshamus.
Symptoms ofbrain cancer in children
Dr. Rajen Mody, a pediatric oncologist at C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital at the University of Michigan, said early detection of brain cancer gives kids the best possible odds of survival.
But even when it’s found early, brain cancer remains the deadliestform of cancer among children.
“Overall, brain tumors account for about 20% of all cancers,” Mody said. “Itsthe second most common next to leukemia. While brain tumor is the second most common, it isthe most deadly. Leukemia is relatively more curable than brain cancers.”
Some symptoms to watch for include:
“Many of the symptoms are common symptoms,” Mody said. “But if that is happening for more than a week… if it wakes them up in the night, or youre getting calls from school saying you need to pick up your child, those are very unusual things.
“When it affects daily life, like eating, sleeping, school, that is not normal. You need to pay attention. Vomiting without prior nausea, especially in the morning, or having a hard time walking in a straight line or having what they call a drunken gait, and if their eyes are not following or lazy eyes, those are the symptoms that should be taken immediately very seriously.”
And while early diagnosis can help,Mody said it’s also important to continue researching the genetics of brain tumors and searching for new and better treatments.
“Fortunately, I think Mott is doing some amazing work in brain tumor field these days with a lot of the support and awareness has been brought by the story of Chad Carr,” he said.
Chad Carrwas the grandson of former U-M football coach Lloyd Carr. Chad diedat the age of 5 in 2015 after trying to overcome a brain tumor of his own, diffuse intrinsic pontine glioma.
TheUniversity of Michigan Pediatric Brain Cancer Research Initiative was established in his honorand raises money and awareness for pediatric brain cancer research.
To learn more about the initiative, including how tomake a donation, go to mottchildren.org/giving/chad-tough-fundor call Maria Bertram at the University of Michigan Health System’s Office of Development at734-763-6184 or send her an e-mail email@example.com.
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