An Abiding Peace

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An Abiding Peace
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Peace, that’s what Brittany Hawkins remembers about the day her doctor stepped into her hospital room and delivered news that forever changed not only her life but those of everyone she loves.

“The doctor came in and he said, ‘Can I hug you?’” she recalled. “I thought, ‘Okay, sure.’ And he said, ‘I don’t know how to tell you this, but you have lung cancer.’”

After he left, Brittany laid down and took a nap.

“I knew that God had it,” she said while sitting in a coffee shop in downtown Elizabethtown with her 8-year-old son, Beckham, over two years later.

The cancer isn’t gone…and Brittany knows there likely will come a day when the medication that has become as much a part of her daily routine as brushing her teeth first thing in the morning won’t be able to fight it off. Still, the peace she felt in her hospital room remains.

In early 2021, Brittany developed a cough. During the COVID pandemic, it initially was treated as a viral infection, but when it didn’t go away, she was prescribed steroids. The cough, however, continued to linger.

“I blamed it on stress and just not taking care of myself,” Brittany, 36 at the time, said.

By May, she began having visual disturbances, with her eyesight blurring for 20 to 30 minutes at random times. Dismissed as migraines, they weren’t thought to be a cause for concern.

Brittany, however, began having trouble breathing. Standing to sing at church, holding her breath to wash her face in the shower, and walking up the steps at home all proved challenging, if not impossible.

The results of a chest X-ray were concerning enough that Brittany was sent to a pulmonologist in July. Following a CT scan, the pulmonologist told her she likely had a nasty infection that would require a long round of antibiotics but ordered a bronchoscopy for the following Wednesday just to be sure.

That was on a Friday. On Monday, Brittany had a stroke.

“I was at work. I went to say good morning to the staff and the words would not come out. They were in my brain, but all that came out was gibberish,” she said. “My eyes got big, and I tried to make a joke, like, ‘I think I just had a stroke,’ but that wouldn’t come out either, so then I started to panic.”

Brittany’s co-workers rushed her to the hospital, where she was admitted and immediately put on blood thinners to prevent a follow-up stroke. Her pulmonologist then made a crucial decision. Believing the bronchoscopy outweighed the risk of another possible stroke, he took her off the blood thinners in order to perform the procedure.

It was that Friday—July 23, 2021—that Brittany learned she had lung cancer. Having spread to both lungs, her lymphatic system, and spine, as well as affecting her blood and leading to the stroke, it was already stage 4.

“Looking back on it, it’s still hard to believe because I felt fine. I had a cough, but I never felt sick,” she said. “You would think if your cancer had got to that point, you would know it.”

For Brittany, learning that she had cancer—especially lung cancer—was a shock.

“I have never been a smoker. I have never really been around it because I lost my mom to (pancreatic) cancer. Of course, I didn’t want to go down that road, and if I can prevent something, I will. So, to hear that I had lung cancer after I had tried so hard not to get that one was shocking,” she said.

Determined that Brittany’s cancer had to be due to a genetic alteration, her doctor ordered three biopsies. She was found to have the rare RET mutation. But God was already at work because in 2020 two oral-targeted drugs were given rushed FDA approval for their extreme effectiveness in treating this type of cancer. Within three months of taking four daily pills, the spots on her spine and the lymphatic spread had cleared and the tumors in her lung that, according to her doctor, “looked like a shotgun blast had gone off” had shrunk from the size of a lemon to a grape.

“After such a drastic response, we decided to do high-dose radiation to the consolidated tumor, but I have continued to stay on the medicine, and it has continued to keep the cancer at bay,” Brittany said.

“Cancer is smart, and at some point it will figure out how to grow around the medicine that's been blocking it, or what typically happens is the cancer mutates into another type of alteration. So, I’ll still have RET, but I'll develop something else on top of it,” she said, noting she already is beyond the average time to progression for people on the medication. “Our prayer is that I stay ahead of the trials and the next medicine is ready and approved before I need it.”

Brittany and her husband, Jeremiah, struggled for almost five years before becoming pregnant with Beckham. It’s from that struggle that she is able to find some of her peace.

“It sits in the back of my mind. We wouldn’t have gone through what we went through to have Beckham just to have me taken away. That’s part of where I draw my hope from—I believe God wouldn’t do that,” she said. “But, also, I know God’s letting me borrow him for a time and I don’t have control over how long that time is.”

Brittany knows that our prayers aren’t always answered the way we want—and she is at peace with that. While it was hard when she lost her mom, who was “the biggest inspiration in her life,” when Brittany was just 17, she was comforted by the faith that she’s had since saying yes to Jesus when she was 5.

“I have always just carried my faith with me. That’s where I find my hope and peace,” she said.

It’s that peace that only comes from faith that has provided Brittany and Jeremiah wisdom and strength to be honest with Beckham about her cancer.

“We started small, and we would tell him a little bit every week,” she said. “We started with, ‘Mom has some nasty germs in her body and the doctor’s working on how to get rid of those,’ and we’d let him think about that for a week or so. Then, we came back and said, ‘Would you like to know what those germs are called? They have a name. They’re called cancer.’ Of course, at that point, he sees commercials and stuff, so cancer’s scary. So, we give him some time to think about that, ask his questions.”

Eventually, Beckham asked the biggest question: “Is this going to kill you?”

“We’ve always been very honest with him. ‘The likelihood is, yes, it probably will kill Mom someday, but everybody is going to die someday, and so we make the most of the time we have, and we thank God for every day that He gives us and that He gives us together.’ He has accepted that as well as a child can,” Brittany said.

Beckham is a typical, happy boy, excited when his mom lets him get a cookie at the coffee shop and lighting up when talking about his family’s recent visit to Dave & Buster’s, but that doesn’t mean he isn’t aware of Brittany’s illness in the day-to-day of normal life. For example, while looking at the autograph of one of his favorite baseball players on the way to school, he asked her why it was curly. When Brittany told him that it was in cursive, Beckham asked if he would learn how to write like that. She answered that if it isn’t taught in third grade, she would teach him.

“His response was, ‘Okay, I have to learn as much as I can from you because I won’t have my mom as long as other kids,’” she said. “It’s been very matter-of-fact for him.”

Once Brittany and Jeremiah welcomed Beckham into the world, their prayers shifted from being able to start a family to their little boy having a heart for the Lord. Looking back, they can see how God faithfully answered their prayers.

A kindergarten student during COVID, Beckham’s public school wasn’t meeting in person. With remote learning not an option since Brittany and Jeremiah both work during the day, they enrolled Beckham at North Hardin Christian School, which was still holding traditional classes. Each day at school, Beckham received a Bible lesson, reinforcing what he heard at church on Sundays in SE!KIDS at Southeast’s Elizabethtown Campus. He eventually began asking questions and Brittany and Jeremiah answered them as best they could. If they didn’t know the answer, they were honest and said they would pray about it and encouraged Beckham to do so, too.

It was around the time of SE!KIDS Camp in the Summer of 2022 that Beckham said the words she and Jeremiah had long prayed for.

“I came into his room one morning to get him up, and he said, ‘Mom, I asked Jesus to come live in my heart last night before I went to sleep,’” Brittany said.

Jeremiah and Brittany talked with the Elizabethtown SE!KIDS leader about Beckham being baptized, but since he was only 7 at the time, it was decided to wait a year. They used that year to continue pouring into him. This past Summer, having continued to grow in his faith, Beckham reaffirmed his decision to be baptized.

Just as July 23, 2021 was a day that forever changed Brittany’s life and those of everyone she loves, so was August 20, 2023. She stood beside Beckham as Jeremiah prepared to baptize him, telling him that it “fills our hearts with joy knowing that not only do we get to spend our days with each other here but that we also will get to spend eternity together because we all have Jesus.”

Brittany prays that she’ll be completely healed and that she’ll have many more days with Jeremiah and Beckham. Having been expected not to celebrate another Christmas, she’s about to see her third since she was diagnosed. That’s three more Christmases full of memories that Beckham will have of his mom. For that, along with God drawing Beckham near to Him, she is thankful and able to continue to find peace.

“Looking back, now that I have Beckham, God has already more than answered my prayers,” she said.