Cheyenne Wells, Colorado – In this close-knit community of nearly 900 people, it’s hard to find someone who doesn’t know her name: Marcy Brossman.
On these eastern plains, residents work hard in oil and gas fields, on ranches and farms and in the fields that, this time of year, take on a hue the color of Shredded Wheat. In their free time, they cheer on the Tigers of Cheyenne Wells School, raise animals and crops and, of late, show their support for Marcy.
She is 39 years old, a strong, determined and sometimes hard-headed woman who serves as the Cheyenne County Administrator. By day, she manages calendars, agendas and policies for the Board of County Commissioners. By night, she and her husband Kurt raise three kids: Makayla, 13; Kenzie, 11; and Kooper, 9. The Brossmans serve as 4-H leaders of a group of about 30 kids, attend their kids’ sporting and school events and care for their horses, dogs, rabbits, goats and chickens.
No matter where you go here, people sport T-shirts that say: “I wear GRAY for Marcy.’’ Every squad car in the Cheyenne County Sheriff’s Office is adorned with a sticker that says: “Marcy, we got your 6,’’ which in law enforcement lingo means, “We’ve got your back.’’
When Kurt and Marcy Brossman moved to this quaint community 14 years ago, they worried that they would be considered “outsiders.’’ He grew up in Limon up Highway 40, and she was born and raised in Hugo.
Today, those worries are far behind, though there are new worries — big ones, the life-and-death kind.
A day she’ll never forget
Last spring, Marcy woke up on April 6 and went through her regular morning routine. As she ate a bowl of instant oatmeal – a feeling of uneasiness came over her. Anxiety, something she rarely had, swept over her like a panic attack. She had a strong feeling that something bad was going to happen and she told Kurt she didn’t think their oldest daughter Makayla should attend her track meet that day because she felt like she was going to get hurt. Something bad was going to happen, but she never realized it would in fact be her.
Her worry was accompanied by a pervasive, weird taste in her mouth that she tried to get rid of. She felt horribly dizzy like she was going to pass out. Maybe the oatmeal was bad, she thought, and she was in the throes of a bad case of food poisoning. Her head was filled with a thunderous sound, like a freight train roaring through the living room, and she turned to her daughter and asked: “Kenzie, do you hear that?’’
“Hear what?’’ her daughter responded.
An athletic woman who played sports, worked out, rode horses and always stayed busy, Marcy could barely stand. Kurt had to help her navigate up the three steps to their bedroom in their tri-level home on the edge of town.
Marcy lay in bed for a little while. The bad taste in her mouth was so bad she gagged herself, hoping that she would feel better — but nothing would come up. A resilient woman, Marcy decided to fight through what still seemed like a bad case of food poisoning and decided to get up and go to work. Kurt took the kids to school and went to work.
At the county courthouse, Marcy didn’t spend more than 30 minutes in her office before she called Kurt and said she needed to go to the doctor. Kurt arrived within minutes, and had to hold onto to Marcy to help her get to the car. When she was within about three steps from the car door, Marcy told him: “I don’t think I can make it, you need to call an ambulance.’’
Kurt managed to get her to the car and they drove a few blocks to Keefe Memorial Hospital. The hospital’s maintenance man, who also runs the county’s office for Veteran’s Affairs, grabbed a wheelchair. Inside the emergency room, a nurse who has known Marcy for a long time grew concerned.
“Something’s not right,’’ she said. “She’s cowgirl tough.’’
Marcy relayed her symptoms – dizziness, weakness, horrible taste in mouth – to Dr. Kurt Papenfus, a primary care doctor in Cheyenne Wells.
One of those symptoms – the bad taste in her mouth – prompted Dr. Papenfus to order a CT scan for Marcy’s brain. He didn’t have to study the black-and-white image very long before he saw an obvious problem on the right side of her brain.
Dr. Papenfus explained that the tumor was rather large and that the bad taste that Marcy experienced was a telltale sign of a medial temporal lobe seizure.
“If it was my wife,’’ he told Kurt, “I’d fly her to a bigger hospital like University of Colorado Hospital in Aurora.’’
Dr. Papenfus ordered an AirLife helicopter that is positioned in Hugo. It landed in Cheyenne Wells, and emergency personnel loaded Marcy onto the aircraft. Kurt ran across the street to the school to tell their oldest child that Mom was being flown to Denver. As the helicopter took off for UCHealth University of Colorado Hospital, the aircraft hesitated over the field where Marcy’s daughter Makayla was having a track meet so she knew that mom was aboard.
Kurt filled up the tank of their vehicle at the local gas station, and held his foot heavily on the accelerator for the next 164 miles.
Dr. Papenfus sent the CT images to Dr. D. Ryan Ormond, a neurosurgeon and director of UCHealth University of Colorado Hospital Brain Tumor Program. When Marcy arrived at University of Colorado Hospital, she was sent for an MRI later that evening. She was placed in the ICU.
The next morning, Dr. Ormond told Marcy that she had a brain tumor that measured 1.5 to 2 inches in diameter in the right temporal lobe and insula and that she would need surgery to remove it. The tumor was pushing on her brain stem, a potentially life-threatening situation, and had moved the midline of her brain 5 mm off of its center.
Upon hearing that news, Marcy and Kurt knew that their lives had changed forever.
“We cried and cried and cried and cried some more,’’ Kurt said.
In rural America, word travels fast. The Brossmans have friends throughout eastern Colorado and in many other states where they have friends and family. Their children are involved in rodeo, horse shows, 4H, school sports; and Kurt and Marcy are local 4H leaders. The very day that Marcy was flown to UCHealth, friends from the community and family were at the hospital by their side.
Marcy was scheduled for surgery four days later. Before the 8 p.m. April 10 surgery, Kurt quizzed Dr. Ormond, who had been performing other surgeries throughout the day.
“It’s been a long day. Are you sure you are 100 percent?’’ Kurt asked. Dr. Ormond assured him that he and his team were ready to go.
Before she went under anesthesia, Marcy, who is not the kind of person who leaves things undone – dictated the 4H meeting agenda to Kurt before going under since they had a meeting coming up and needed to get the agenda emailed out to members. The club had an upcoming community service recycling project. Flyers were posted around town with her cell phone number on the flyer for those who had questions, so Marcy was receiving phone calls prior to surgery.
Privately, Marcy was apprehensive and fearful. Who wouldn’t be?
Dr. Ormond knew that the surgery he was about to do was “relatively high risk’’ because of the tumor’s location in an area of the brain that controls the left side of the body, personality, memory and emotions.
“The goal of the surgery was to help her emotionally, to reduce pressure on the brain stem and avoid weakness on the left side,’’ he said.
The surgery would remove a rare type of brain cancer, anaplastic astrocytoma, which affects five in 100,000 people per year and currently has no known cure. Marcy’s tumor was a grade III, and she donated her tumor and blood to research.
Dr. Ormond told Marcy and Kurt that the median life expectancy for that type of brain cancer is three to five years, though many patients live longer than 10 years.
“I am not done raising my kids, and I’m not finished growing old with my best friend, my husband,’ Marcy said of Kurt, whom she met at a country dance on St. Patrick’s Day in Hugo in 1995.
The surgery was a success, according to Dr. Ormond, and helped correct the issue with the midline of the brain being off-center. As part of the surgery, screws and a titanium plate were placed in Marcy’s head and, later, she and Kurt joked about it.
“Now I really am hard-headed,’’ she said.
The Brossmans were optimistic: “To go through brain surgery and to come out walking and talking, with your memory intact, that’s amazing,’’ Kurt said.
Seven days after the AirLife helicopter flew Marcy to Aurora – she was back home in Cheyenne Wells. A few weeks later, she began a regimen of chemotherapy and seven weeks of radiation.
Dr. Doug Ney, a neuro oncologist at UCHealth University of Colorado Hospital, coordinated her care. He put Marcy on Temozolomide, an oral form of chemotherapy.
“So far,’’ Dr. Ney said, “it has been effective.’’
She received the treatments at University of Colorado Hospital and always had a family member or friend with her given her proclivity to seizures while having radiation daily at the hospital. She stayed in Aurora during the week for radiation and came home on weekends.
When Kurt wasn’t with Marcy, he held down the homestead back in Cheyenne Wells. He got the kids to school, softball, baseball, 4H events and made sure they were properly raising their pigs, rabbits, horses and goats for the Cheyenne County Fair.
The community delivered meals daily for two months and when Marcy was not at the hospital getting treatment, she went to work, attended the children’s events and sent hand-written thank-you notes – at least 150 of them so far.
More unexpected news
Her white blood cell count, red blood cell count and platelets had been dropping gradually after starting chemo and radiation. She began getting bloody noses more frequently too. She started receiving platelet and blood transfusions about 3 weeks into treatments.
Oddly last summer, during one of the kid’s 4H events, Marcy had a horrible nose bleed. The nose bleeds became more frequent and longer, with this one lasting nearly 26 hours. This was a sign that her platelet count was extremely low. A couple days later while she was in her hotel room in Aurora, she passed out when she awoke that morning. Luckily, her friend who was with her had caught her, so she didn’t hit her head when she fell. She was taken to the emergency room at UCHealth University of Colorado Hospital. She was admitted to the hospital for the remainder of the week.
Marcy was back in Cheyenne Wells after radiation treatment ended in mid-July, and strong enough to see the kids at the county fair and watch Kooper ride his mini bronc horse at the rodeo. After he was tossed off the bronc, Kooper pointed to the sky, knelt down on one knee and made the sign of the cross, like pro football players often do after making a touchdown. A rodeo clown scooped him up, held him up to the crowd, and asked Kooper: “Anyone you want to give a shout out to?’’
“My mom,’’ the 9-year-old said.
Since her blood counts were still low, Marcy was referred to a UCHealth hematologist, Dr. Stuart Lind. A bone marrow biopsy was done the first week of September and Dr. Lind delivered more devastating news. Marcy had LGL – large granular lymphocyte leukemia, a rare form of blood cancer. Only 1,000 new cases appear in the United States each year. The brain cancer and the leukemia are unrelated and unusual for a person to have two such illnesses.
“Fortunately, LGL leukemia is a chronic leukemia, (meaning a condition of abnormal growth of a certain type of bone marrow cell) and one that is not typically life-threatening,’’ Dr. Lind said.
“The treatment for this condition consists of out-patient oral therapy (Methotrexate) and aims to allow the normal bone marrow cells to grow to normal levels. Treatment typically lasts for less than a year,’’ Lind said.
Each Wednesday, Marcy takes the outpatient therapy, six chemotherapy pills to treat the blood cancer so that she can start back on chemotherapy for the brain tumor. Dr. Ney and Dr. Lind are collaborating on Marcy’s treatment.
“We have to be creative,’’ Dr. Ney said. The two are researching and developing a plan that will allow them to continue having Marcy take Methotrexate for the leukemia and a lower dose of Temozolomide for the brain tumor. Medically, Ney said, “this is both difficult and challenging.’’
The chemotherapy for the leukemia usually zaps her energy and makes her feel sick some days, but a few days later she starts to feel better. Her body is weak from not being as active as she was prior to brain surgery. Marcy continues to battle the medial temporal lobe seizures on a regular basis, but she can feel them coming on and so she prepares herself. She takes anti-seizure medicine to help control them.
She misses playing sports with her kids and helping them with their 4H animals, but she has managed with incredible grace.
“Marcy is great and, of course, her husband is great, too,’’ Dr. Ney said. “They are very strong people who have a strong will to live. The thing about Marcy is she has so many opportunities to complain, and she never does.’’
Marcy has a brain scan MRI every other month to monitor the brain tumor. A recent MRI showed no new growth on the brain tumor and continued blood tests will show whether the chemotherapy has helped keep the blood cancer at bay.
Throughout her treatment, she has continued to go to serve as the county administrator.
“I’m passionate about that. It’s my job, and I’m going to do my job,’’ she said. “Getting up and going to work helps me keep my mind occupied from thinking about having multiple cancers, especially when I’m not feeling well. The thought of death is a scary thing. It’s emotionally tough to handle somedays,” she said. Marcy often listens to inspirational music to keep a positive attitude.
A community filled with hope
Dr. Ormond said Marcy’s positive attitude and fighting spirit are pivotal in her battle against the cancers.
“There’s a lot of evidence that your attitude makes a big difference in your prognosis,’’ Ormond said. “So her positive attitude is going to help her live longer. Her outreach to the community, her community involvement and her excitement of being alive is going to help with her life expectancy.’’
Marcy and Kurt are relying on each other, their faith and the power of prayer.
“You don’t know how strong you are until being strong is the only choice you have,’’ she said.
Friends in Cheyenne Wells often ask Kurt how Marcy and the family are doing. His response is always positive.
“We go hard. Slowing down is not really an option. We put our pants on each day and take steps forward. There’s no time to back down and crawl into a hole,’’ he tells them.
Despite their courage, Marcy said she has emotional breakdowns and when she does, she turns to her kids, Kurt and her faith for comfort. For the first day and a half after her diagnosis, she couldn’t say the words brain and cancer. It is a disease, she knows, that is not discriminatory. It chooses anyone.
After Marcy organized a sports performance camp over the Christmas break for the kids in the community, her co-worker, Shaun Spangle, told her: “I really truly believe you are an inspiration, Marcy.’’
Always humble, Marcy responded: “I must be good at hiding it because I have so many weak moments. But I hope that my story does inspire others to fight the fight.’’
Marcy has told her children that she plans to be on the side of the statistics that say she’ll live 10 years or longer. Kooper sat beside her on the couch when Kurt and Marcy told their kids about her longevity. Kooper did the math and said, “Momma, if you live 10 years, then you’ll get to see me graduate from high school.”
Marcy told Kooper, “You’re not getting rid of me that early. I’m going to not only see you graduate from high school, but also haul you to college.”
Hope is contagious in this small town. It’s everywhere — on gray T-shirts, the back of the county sheriff’s patrol cars and in the hearts of those coming to the Brossman’s home with homemade meals.
Marcy and Kurt Brossman and their three children feel that hope, it’s with them when they put their pants on, take steps forward, thankful for every day they have together as a family.