Brenda Crandall walks the tranquil beach in front of her Grand Traverse Bay home, grateful for each grain of sand.
The sun sets as she strolls, but this day, this season of gratitude doesn’t end for Crandall, who was diagnosed with ovarian cancer at age 44.
She trusts in tomorrow. And bright new beginnings.
It wasn’t long ago she thought the sun would be setting on her life.
“Looking back, I probably had some symptoms but didn’t know they were symptoms,” Crandall said. “I was feeling full fast. I had light flutters that went on in my belly, like little electrical shocks.”
Crandall had a hysterectomy in 2011. She thought some of the physical sensations and weight gain she was experiencing last year may be due to that—or a summer of barbecue and beer.
In November, she traveled to Las Vegas to meet up with her daughter, her sister and a friend for an extended weekend birthday celebration. Like a royal flush slammed face down on the table, she could no longer ignore the symptoms.
“I had a hard time eating and drinking,” she recalled. “I was getting fuller and fuller. My pants weren’t fitting right. I had diarrhea almost every day. When I got back to Michigan, I was looking about seven months pregnant.”
The Saturday after Thanksgiving, her husband insisted she go to urgent care. A nurse practitioner encouraged her to get a vaginal ultrasound, because her symptoms presented like possible ovarian cancer.
The first week of December, scans showed a 19 centimeter mass on her right ovary.
Her CA-125 tumor marker reading, a protein test that is often one of the first indicators of cancer, was through the roof at 4,600.
“Things were all pointing to ovarian cancer for sure,” she said. “Now at this point, I’m 12 months pregnant because I’m so full of fluid.”
By mid-December, Gordon Downey, MD, a Spectrum Health gynecologic oncologist, confirmed the suspicion: stage 4 ovarian cancer.
“I traveled down to see Dr. Downey on a Friday,” Crandall recalled. “He was very generous about making room for me. I was scared. He said 80 percent of women do very well with chemotherapy for ovarian cancer and that 20 percent do not and usually die.”
Dr. Downey suggested that Crandall go through chemo to shrink the small, loaf-of-bread-sized tumor before he operated. She endured three rounds at Spectrum Health Cancer Center.
Her tumor board marker fell to 299 after the first three treatments as the mass shrunk to 3.5 centimeters from its original 19.
Dr. Downey performed a four-and-a-half hour surgery on St. Patrick’s Day, removing cancer from her ovaries, fallopian tubes, colon and belly fat lining. Her tumor marker plummeted to 29, in the normal range.
“He removed all of the cancer he could find,” Crandall said. “He was pretty confident he had gotten all that he could see with his eyes. I had five rounds of chemo after that.”
She completed her treatments on July 13 and is currently in remission. An Aug. 4 CT scan showed no cancer and her tumor marker readings remain normal.
Dr. Downey called Crandall’s medical journey “a true and encouraging story of advanced ovarian cancer treated by modern technique and chemotherapy.”
Although there’s a chance cancer could return, Dr. Downey said her remission may last for several years. And, if it does reoccur, she’s a proven candidate for successful treatment.
“She has had a remarkable response to her treatment with significant improvement in her performance and quality of life,” Dr. Downey said. “There is little doubt that her positive attitude has played a significant role in her recovery.”
Crandall embraces the positive changes in her life.
“My hair is almost an inch and a half on my head,” she said. “I’m back to shaving my legs and my armpits. I am feeling amazing.”
But her good health fortune hasn’t lulled her into complacency. Quite the opposite. Like the waves that whip up in front of her East Bay home, she is swelling with fortitude to fight, conviction to conquer and strength to share.
“I think about it every day,” Crandall said. “It’s not about having the cancer. What goes through my mind is how can I help women know the symptoms? When you talk to women with ovarian cancer, whether they’re still fighting or have fought their battle, they look back and see symptoms they didn’t know they had.”
Fittingly, she said Dr. Downey explained to her that ovarian cancer is like grains of sand.
“A grain of sand can hide in a lot of crevices,” she said. “That’s why it’s deadly. You don’t find it until it’s very advanced.”
She encourages other women to really know and trust their body.
“Somewhere down the line you know your body wasn’t right but you couldn’t put your finger on it,” Crandall said. “One woman, her only symptom was she had heartburn for the first time in her life. The key to all of this is really knowing your body and trusting what your body is telling you.”
Crandall stressed that early detection is key for any cancer, including this one.
“It’s a cancer that whispers,” she said. “It does not show its face until it’s pretty advanced.”
Crandall said her beach time has changed since the disease. Her entire life has.
“I walk the beach a few times a week and I think about how blessed I am to have a second chance,” she said. “Women are living 10, 15, 20 years in advanced stage ovarian cancer. When I first learned I had it, I thought I would die—I read that there’s a 17 percent chance of living five years. At 44, I wanted to live 20 or 25 years or longer.”
She said she watches her diet and gets plenty of exercise.
“There are no guarantees,” she said. “But living in the moment and rejoicing in every day I have will help me get to the finish line later in life.”
And basking in the beauty at her East Bay home.
“I’ve seen more sunsets this summer than I have my whole life,” Crandall said.
With the hope, now, of seeing it rise again.