His fight against cancer sends John Brennan off in new directions
Thursday, February 1, 2001
By Aaron Fentress of The Oregonian staff
BEAVERTON John Brennan stands at the edge of the Conestoga Aquatic Center swimming pool and watches the Southridge High swim team take warm-up laps.
He assesses the turn of one student and doesn't like what he sees.
He shouts directions to the swimmer, who heeds his advice. After all, he knows what he's talking about.
A champion swimmer at Aloha High School, the 20-year-old Brennan was going to swim at Brigham Young University -- until he lost his right leg to bone cancer.
He wears his prosthetic leg proudly. It's a badge of honor from his war against the cancer that claimed the limb just months after he was a Metro League swim champion and before he was to begin competing at BYU.
For Brennan, who has always been cocky and sure, the cancer is merely a challenge he was meant to beat. He's moved on to another challenge: living as a cancer survivor.
"I beat the statistics by getting it," Brennan said. "So the statistics don't mean jack! I figured, to make the statistics, someone had to live, so why can't it be me?"
The first lap
Brennan had it all: Good looks. Good student. Good athlete. And he knew it.
And he'll tell you all about it.
"He thinks pretty highly of himself," said his 18-year-old sister, Melissa, a swimmer at Southridge.
A 1999 graduate of Aloha High, Brennan swam for the boys swim team and the Tualatin Hills Swim Club. He won the Metro League championship in the 100-yard breaststroke his senior year. For Tualatin Hills, he placed in the top 16 in the 200-yard breaststroke at the Speedo Junior National Championships West.
But while he was winning swim meets, cancer was eating at his right knee. He began feeling pain in February 1999 and competed through it.
But the pain began to escalate, and in May, Brennan consulted a doctor. An X-ray showed nothing abnormal.
Later that month, while he was jogging, the knee gave out.
The diagnosis was torn cartilage. Brennan underwent arthroscopic surgery on June 4, and a week later he walked in his graduation ceremonies.
Soon afterward, his leg began to swell, and Brennan found it harder to put his knee brace on. "I couldn't figure out what was going on," he said.
Doctors thought a hematoma was causing the knee to swell with blood. They drained it, and Brennan resumed exercising as he prepared for college.
As summer wore on, Brennan's family noticed a change. He lost weight, appeared fatigued and was not his usual active self. His leg bothered him more.
Melissa, who was used to working out with her brother in the pool or running, knew something wasn't right. "It scared me,"she said.
Brennan left for BYU, where he had an academic scholarship, in September. His mother, Lisa Brennan, 42, accompanied him. "I had this gut feeling that I needed to be with him," she said.
They day after they arrived in Provo, Utah, Brennan's leg became unbearably painful. "It was hard to even walk," he said.
The swelling engulfed his kneecap. They found a doctor, who drained the knee. A biopsy at a hospital in Orem followed and uncovered a tumor the size of a football, Brennan said.
The diagnosis was osteosarcoma, which had destroyed tissue all the way to his hip.
Doctors told Lisa Brennan first. When she told her son, he responded in his typical cocky fashion. "Oh, I'm not afraid of a tumor," he said.
His mother was. "It took a week to digest the word 'cancer,' " she said. "Your initial reaction when you hear cancer is, you're going to die."
The rest of the family -- father, Greg, and sisters, Melissa; Amy, now 15; and Shelby, now 11 -- were camping in Idaho when they got the news. Greg Brennan sent his girls home and drove to Utah to be with his son.
The cancer had metastasized to Brennan's lungs, where doctors counted at least 40 tumors. They predicted Brennan wouldn't live past Thanksgiving, the family says now, although at the time the family asked not to know the prognosis.
But the Brennans could guess. Greg Brennan remembers seeing medical staff standing around his son. "They weren't saying much, but some were shaking their heads," he said. "But we decided that we really didn't care what the odds were."
The Brennans told the doctors to forget about the numbers.
"We wanted them to treat him as an individual," Lisa Brennan said. "We didn't want him treated as a statistic."
The second lap
Instead of starting college, Brennan began chemotherapy under the supervision of Dr. Sarah Freyberger at Legacy Emanuel Hospital. Within months, his 6-foot-1 frame had dropped from 170 pounds to 120.
"We got to a point where there had to be choices made," Lisa Brennan said. Should the leg be amputated? Could the lungs be operated on?
Doctors advised that if the tumor were removed, the chemotherapy could focus on the lungs. They weren't certain whether they would be able to save the leg.
Brennan underwent surgery May 2, 2000. He awoke from the operation and asked the nurse what happened.
"She told me, and I went back to sleep," he said.
When he got home from the hospital, he had to adjust to his changed life -- as did his family. His three sisters weren't sure how to act around him.
"I felt bad, but I didn't know what to say to him," Melissa said. "I was really involved in swimming and would want to talk about it but felt bad because I didn't want to upset him."
Six weeks later, he was fitted for a prosthetic leg from the thigh down. The worst part, he said, was getting over the phantom sensation of feeling his leg was still there. "That was the worst pain of all," he said.
Throughout his recovery, her brother "set an example for us," remembered Shelby. "If he can be happy, then why should we be sad?"
The final kick
After the amputation, the family began looking for a doctor to remove the tumors from Brennan's lungs. After a lengthy search, the Brennans found Dr. Charles Douville.
On Aug. 23, Douville removed 78 tumors from Brennan's lungs.
The family noticed the same competitiveness Brennan had displayed throughout his life resurface in his fight with cancer.
"He's really competitive, and that's one of the reasons he's done so well," his sister Amy said.
In recovery, Brennan learned doctors originally had given him a 2 percent chance of survival. Beating the odds made him proud.
Five months later, Brennan said he feels great and goes to the gym five or six days a week. He began coaching at Southridge in November and started a job as a bank teller Monday.
Head coach Carl Jaynes said the swimmers respect Brennan and never allow his physical limitations to enter the equation. Sometimes Brennan will take off his leg and get in the pool with them.
"Just him getting in the water and swimming with them has had a real impact," Jaynes said.
Southridge junior Mike Herrall said he didn't think much about Brennan's missing leg when he met him. When he learned more from Melissa, he said he was impressed.
"It's amazing," Herrall said. "It kind of makes you look up to him."
Brennan is not out of the woods. A recent checkup revealed two tumors on his lungs. The doctors are waiting to see what happens: The hope is that his body will fight them off. If not, more surgery could be necessary.
The discovery was cause for sadness, at first.
"I thought for a minute," Brennan said, "and realized that it was pretty good. I had already survived 78."
The next lap
Brennan wears his prosthetic leg proudly. He smiles when he sees a child turn and gawk at the mechanical limb. Adults go out of their way to avoid looking at his leg. But Brennan doesn't mind if they do -- he often wears shorts, half showing off.
"I'm not ashamed of what happened, and I'm absolutely willing to discuss it and talk about it," he said. "Part of the goal is to allay the fear. If people ask, I will tell him."
His mother is amazed by his spirit. "He just never gets down," she said.
Brennan intends to attend BYU in the spring, majoring in mechanical engineering and taking prerequisites for medical school.
The mechanical engineering will help him with his next project. He hopes to design a more useful prosthetic leg.
"Right now the project is for me," he said. "If it turns out to be successful, then I will pass it along."
He's studying how the foot and toes move in walking and running. People sometimes must change the type of prosthetic they have for different activities. He hopes to design something that can do anything a regular foot can do.
"I'm not concerned with doing things for myself right now," he said. "I'm not doing it for me anymore. I'm happy with who I am. I just want to be able to help other people."