She was a 10-year-old girl who loved animals, and cats most of all.
So when swollen lymph nodes appeared in Brieanna’s neck, her doctor looked close to home for answers — cat scratch fever was one of the illnesses to be ruled out. Lymphoreticulosis is its scientific name.
But it was rhabdomyosarcoma – another word that “took many tries to learn to pronounce” – that would come to roll off Brieanna’s tongue, no problem. Rhabdomyosarcoma, a cancerous tumor, would dictate much of her life for the next two and a half years as a patient at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital.
"The hardest part was not being able to see my cat, Max," Brieanna said. "My friends and family could all come visit but he couldn’t.”
Max had been a member of the family since Brieanna was a kindergartener. Now she was turning 11, hooked up to a machine, homesick and sometimes sick from chemotherapy, too. The absence of Max didn't help.
“It was so bad we were visiting the local pet supply store three or four times a week when I felt good enough” just to visit the kittens up for adoption, she said.
During her time at St. Jude, getting chemotherapy and surgery and proton therapy to remove the tumor in her sinus cavity and try to keep it from coming back, Brieanna wasn’t just being treated for a catastrophic disease. She was growing as a person, learning empathy, and using her love of cats as a means to become the giving person she is today.
“My parents promised that if I got through this, when I got home I could have any pet I wanted. But I decided what I really wanted was to know that I’m helping another living being. I decided I’m gonna foster neonatal orphan kittens. When I beat cancer, I’m gonna foster kittens that don’t have moms."
And she did. Brieanna was fostering kittens when her six-month post-treatment checkup showed the cancer had returned.
Back at St. Jude for another year of treatment, Brieanna was separated from what had come to give her a sense of purpose. But, a born nurturer, she was drawn to and bonded with some of the babies at St. Jude – Easton, Felicity, Caden – and giving their moms a break kept her going. The families remain friends to this day.
Now nearly 14 years old, Brieanna is cancer-free and back home with her current fosters, 3-week-old kitties called Aphrodite, Athena and Zeus. Brieanna says more kittens enter shelters each year than any other kind of animal.
“I hate looking at the numbers because truly it makes you feel like you’re not doing enough. Now that I am doing as much as I can, my goal is to show others how one little act of kindness can make a big impact for a little fur-baby. I have fostered 37 kittens total and do not plan on stopping anytime soon, and I want to inspire others to do the same!”
Editor’s Note: Brieanna passed away in February 2021.