Brandee’s determination in overcoming lymphoma earned her the admiration of her teammates, coaches, family, friends and medical team at Cleveland Clinic and led to her receiving the 2011 Cleveland Clinic Courage Award. The award recognizes exceptional student athletes who face difficult medical challenges with courage and determination.
Cleveland State University’s Brandee Kelly thought the pain she felt in her lower back during the start of games in her first season might just be due to the grind of a Division I women’s basketball career.
Intense pain sent her to the emergency room where a battery of tests revealed abnormal growths in Brandee’s back, pelvis and leg. After seeing the images, head team physician, Susan Joy, MD, of Cleveland Clinic Sports Health, arranged a biopsy of Brandee’s pelvic bone and referral to an oncologist.
Cleveland Clinic oncologist Brad Pohlman, MD, shared with Brandee the news that the pain was being caused by the mass in her back, which was lymphoma, a type of blood cancer that affects cells of the immune system. In her case, it was found in her bone marrow, and it was spreading throughout her body.
Lymphoma found in young patients can be aggressive and deadly. Treatment would require an intensive regimen of chemotherapy, but there was hope for a full recovery. Brandee says at first she was devastated. She could not understand why a young, active woman would have cancer. But the somberness didn’t last long. The winning spirit that led Brandee to be valedictorian of Beaumont High in St. Louis and a prized recruit for the Vikings defined her cancer treatment.
Accompanied by family members and close friend Monica Daniels, Brandee began the first in a series of chemotherapy treatments that would span four months. Brandee battled through the side effects: intense nausea, vomiting, fatigue and hair loss. Each time she finally began to feel better, she would return to the clinic for another round of treatment.
She said she has always been a positive person. Her cancer experience was a test of that attitude, and she did not waver. Brandee missed only a few weeks of school; she even returned to take final exams and she passed them all.
For her final treatment, with her prognosis for beating cancer seemingly strong, Brandee’s Cleveland State teammates and coaches joined her as she rang the ceremonial bell at Taussig Cancer Institute. The bell gives notice to everyone in the building that a patient has completed a final treatment session. It also signaled to Vikings fans that a healthy, cancer-free Brandee would be returning to the floor for her sophomore season.