It has been a busy last two weeks for Decatur High School senior Kim Brainard, who will reach not one, but two, milestones.
First she participated in her 13th Federal Way Relay for Life as a cancer survivor. Saturday, she will walk across the stage at the Tacoma Dome with other 2017 graduates and receive her high school diploma.
Brainard’s journey to this point has not been easy.
When Brainard was 3 1/2, she was diagnosed with having a medulloblastoma, a malignant brain tumor that is located toward the back and bottom of the brain near the spinal cord.
Ilima Brainard, Kim Brainard’s mother, said it is the most common type of children’s brain tumor – but is devastating if not caught early.
Her young daughter had begun acting differently, however, displaying severe mood swings and nausea. The Brainards took her to see a doctor about her symptoms. Ilima Brainard said they were fortunate in that the doctor listened to the family’s concerns, especially when she mentioned she had previously suffered from a benign brain tumor in the past.
Taking that into consideration, the doctor ordered specific tests, and Kim Brainard was diagnosed with the brain cancer.
Tom Brainard said they explored all the options for Kim’s treatment and settled on a specific type of radiation that targeted the tumor specifically.
Since the closest clinic to offer the treatment was in California, that meant a change in lifestyle for the family for a while, with Kim and Ilima staying in California for the duration and Tom and Kim’s brother, Nick, visiting.
Kim then returned to Washington and underwent chemotherapy at Mary Bridge Children’s Hospital in Tacoma.
When Kim was first diagnosed with cancer, Tom Brainard and his wife decided to make the experience as positive as possible.
“It’s really made our family closer,” he said.
While Kim Brainard was successfully treated for cancer, she did not emerge unscathed. Because of the radiation and chemotherapy, she suffered hearing loss and wears hearing aids every day. The cancer also affected her growth — full-grown, she is 4 feet, 4 inches tall. Her motor and cognitive skills were also affected. Ilima Brainard said learning for her daughter has sometimes been a challenge because she learns things differently.
“She has to work harder than most kids have to,” Ilima Brainard said.
Still, even with the doctor’s warnings of the possible side effects and the resulting outcome, the Brainards never second-guessed Kim’s treatment.
“That’s one of those things that doesn’t matter at that point,” Ilima Brainard said. “The alternative is not an option.”
Kim Brainard said she remembers very little of her ordeal, except for the fun parts.
“I remember going down to California,” she said. She also remembers going to Disneyland and Seaworld and visiting her mom’s relatives.
Brainard said she never thought about her own journey with cancer as a child or even participating in Federal Way’s Relay for Life for a number of years, however, until she reached Decatur High School and saw a teacher and two peers affected by the disease.
And even while Kim has been cancer-free for a number of years, she and her parents are aware her journey with the disease may not be over.
Ilima Brainard said children who suffered from medulloblastoma are at high risk for a number of health problems as adults, including cataracts, low bone density and heart problems. They are also at greater risk for suffering from cancer of any kind, which Ilima Brainard said is something never far from her mind.
“As a parent, every new mole that shows up, you’re like, ‘oh my god, is this going to be skin cancer?” she said. “But again, so far, so good. I guess you kind of learn not to panic. … I guess that’s what we focus on — not focusing on cancer.”
Kim certainly hasn’t let cancer or her challenges keep her from living her life. She drives a car and has participated in many sports growing up. And, like many of her peers, her life has been focused on graduation the past couple of weeks.
“I’m excited,” she said.
Brainard also looks forward to the next part of her journey: attending college, although she will not go very far. While her brother, Nick, goes to college out of state, Kim will attend Highline College in the fall.
“I wanted to stay closer to home,” she said.
Her parents don’t mind.
“We’ve been blessed,” Ilima Brainard said.