By Cameron Brackett
On January 10th, 2021, I completed a 10-mile run. Three days later on January 13th, I sat in the exam room of my hematologist and was told that I have Acute Myeloid Leukemia (AML). I remember thinking this was surreal. How is this possible? However, seconds after hearing it, remember thinking I am going to fight this and I took it as my next challenge.
That night, my wife and I told our kids and then my sisters. Next, we started to share the news with more family and friends. I knew the fight was going to be hard and long and we were going to need support from our community. I had a friend who had been fighting her own battle with cancer and she was open and honest with her journey from the beginning which helped all of her family and friends that surrounded her. I decided to follow her lead and be just as open with my journey.
Next, I had to let my company know and this added more stress as I was already facing so much uncertainty in the other areas of my life. Adding my career to that list just amped up the stress. I not only informed the board, but also the entire company – hiding nothing. That proved to be the right move all around and their support added to my strength for this fight and I needed it as things were just getting started.
The plan was to be admitted within two days to the hospital for 30 days for chemotherapy. As it was in the midst of COVID, this month-long stay in the hospital for this initial round of chemo was spent in isolation from family and friends. The key to getting through it was waking up every day, turning on EVERY light in the room, getting dressed, exercising, and listening to music. I would walk the one hallway back and forth for miles each day. The amazing and supportive staff would even join in giving me even more energy to fight. I had three more isolated hospital stays for chemo before the next part of my journey – stem cell transplant.
Both of my parents were born just as WWII was starting. My mother grew up in England playing in bomb craters and wearing a Mickey Mouse gas mask. Food and supplies were short for both my mother and father (living in Mississippi), but they grew stronger in spite of these things. My father was going to play quarterback for the University of Tennessee, but before the season started, his dad died. He gave up his dream and came back to Jackson to take care of his mother. Growing up with two tough parents instilled some strong values of making the most of what you have. Both of my parents are now gone, but their spirit remains in me. My dad used to tell me “tough as nails and mean as a snake”. I definitely worked on the tough as nails, but tried not to be as mean as a snake. This I carry with me and it helped me through each day of this fight.
While not always successful, there is a path to cure AML. The general plan is chemotherapy until remission, then a stem cell transplant that replaces your DNA with that of another. Paired with very strong chemotherapy, the actual process of the transplant is very uneventful. It essentially takes about 15 minutes and consists of hanging the bag of the stem cells and transfusing them as they would a unit of blood or saline into your body. If all goes well, the donor stem cells take over in your bone marrow and start producing healthy cells. If you’re lucky, you’ll spend a couple of months of recovery as your body switches over to these new donor cells. From there, if you are clear of cancer for 10 years, then you are considered cured.
I went into my first transplant in full remission. Being healthy, even after 4 strong rounds of chemo to get me into remission, the plan was to turn up the heat on chemo to fully clear my stem cells to make room for the donor cells. The side effects were rough. I developed mucositis in my mouth and throat which was the most painful thing I have ever experienced. The word mucositis simply isn’t big enough to describe the pain, but I continued to endure – "embracing the suck". But, even on my worst days, I walked at least a few laps of the hallways. By the end of my 35 day stay, I walked 142 miles on my unit, sometimes pulling two IV poles. It was a challenge but I knew I had to just keep moving.
As my mucositis started to subside, my son Sam was heading to Knoxville to do the GORUCK Tough Operation Redwings. Like every night, I essentially woke up every hour, but this time, I kept thinking about Sam and how he was doing and hoping he was pushing through. The next morning he sent some pics. It brought a huge smile to my face and overwhelming pride, as I saw on his face the awesome feeling of completing a true challenge.
As I continued to recover over the next few months, my blood counts were not improving as the doctors had hoped. In early December of ‘21, they confirmed that the transplant had failed and the leukemia had returned. I needed another transplant and fast.
This time, my medical team chose my son, Sam who recently turned 18, to be the donor. Sam has always been both mentally and physically strong. He’s extremely disciplined and strives to always do the right thing – driving himself to higher and higher goals. Ever since he was a kid he’s gone back and forth between wanting to be a Marine Raider or Navy SEAL. He is now a freshman at Duke University on a National Naval ROTC Scholarship and working to earn a place with the Teams. This was another challenge for him and he did not hesitate to step up and take it on.
The process for donating stem cells now is much easier on the donor than it used to be. They inject the donor’s body with a growth factor medication for about 4 days to stimulate the stem cells to enter the bloodstream. The donors may feel like they have the flu for a few days. On the 5th day, they connect the donor to an apheresis machine that pulls blood from one arm, extracts the stem cells, then puts the blood back into the other arm. The donor may feel a bit weak for a few days, but it passes. Sam took a nap and then went for a run that evening after spending 8 hours in the chair connected to the machine.
My second transplant was on March 3, 2022. It was an amazing day that was made even more special because this time my wife and both of my sons were able to be in the room for it. The recovery from the second transplant was much easier and my blood counts started to rebound much quicker than the first one. The best part was no mucositis! My blood counts have been holding in normal range and I have switched my blood type to Sam’s blood type. It truly is an amazing process. While I’m not out of the woods just yet, I am in remission and I’m heading in the right direction. My doctor has had me doing 12 more cycles of monthly chemo to hopefully prevent a relapse. In January of ‘23, I completed cycle 9 of 12. While not fun, I continue to try to just “Embrace the Suck”, it is the only way. Exercise is key!
One of my goals this past year was to be well enough to help move Sam into his college dorm. I met that goal in August 2022. To be able to be there with him and participate after so many months of isolation during my illness was so meaningful. I have also gotten to travel to soccer tournaments and take pictures of the games of my younger son, Gavin. This is special time I am so thankful for and do not take for granted.
Almost ten years ago, I found GORUCK online and bought my first item, the Tac Hat. I still wear it today. I recall watching these great videos of Jason describing the use of the various bags in such a unique way, but most importantly always seemingly ending with: “Bring two koozies. One for you and one for your friend. If you’re not with a friend, make a friend”. I’ve been going back ever since.
When I got diagnosed, the motto “Embrace the Suck” became more meaningful to me. I wanted to reach out to people that made a difference to me and share my thoughts. I wrote GORUCK and got such an amazing response and support that it only validated my perspectives on GORUCK and their culture. A culture we all need to find. I was even more lucky that I developed a pen pal relationship with Shawne, from GORUCK HQ, that gave me even more strength. Learning more about her and her father provided me inspiration and gave me a new perspective on chaos. I used to think of chaos as opportunity, but in my situation it was hard to see the opportunity. Shawne shared with me a quote her father used to say, it gave me a newfound strength to build upon – "Find the beauty in chaos".
The key to all of this, for me at least, is keeping a positive mental attitude. However, it is VERY hard, if not impossible to have a pure positive attitude. So, when times got tough and I couldn’t muster the strength for positivity, I found a way to embrace the suck, knowing that the pain and challenges would pass. I did whatever it took to not let defeat enter my mind. I channeled the spirit of GORUCK and made friends along the way, and that helped me to keep that strength that made all the difference.
Cameron lives in Memphis, TN and has been happily married to his wife, Suzanne, for 24 years. They have two teenage sons, Sam and Gavin and two dogs, Lily and Lainey.