October 21, 2019
For those who fight for it, life has a flavor the protected will never know.
The words are a familiar sentiment among service men and women. They gave Col. Edward “Butch” Brennan strength not only during his 24 years as an Army infantryman, but also during the greatest battle of his life – against acute myeloid leukemia.
Butch and Alix Brennan married in 1977. Their fathers were both military men, and the Brennans continued the lifestyle through the decades of Col. Brennan’s career after graduation from West Point. By the mid 1990s, the Brennans settled in Leavenworth, Kansas, to continue raising their 5 active children – 3 of whom, plus a son-in-law, served multiple tours overseas supporting the war on terror. In time, the Brennans’ family expanded to include 13 grandchildren, the couple’s pride and joy.
“But then came a strange year,” Alix says. “Butch had a weird cough that just wouldn’t go away. He’d have night sweats. We couldn’t figure out what it was, but we knew something was off-kilter.” Col. Brennan, who’d rarely been sick a day in his life, began visiting doctors. One thought he had sarcoidosis and prescribed prednisone. The medication eased the symptoms – he felt well while enjoying his son’s wedding that summer – but when he stopped the drug 2 months later, the symptoms returned in full force.
“We came to learn the prednisone suppressed the symptoms, making me feel better artificially,” Col. Brennan says. “But from there, I deteriorated very quickly.”
The Brennans returned to the doctor’s office, and Col. Brennan had more bloodwork. They were quickly called back. The doctor informed them that something was wrong with the white blood cells. He said he would send the labs to an expert for counsel. As the Brennans drove home, they received a phone call. It was a specialist at The University of Kansas Cancer Center, and the advice was urgent: “Turn your car around and come in now.” The bloodwork revealed advanced, life-threatening AML. Col. Brennan was admitted to the hospital that night and began chemotherapy the next morning. It was the first step in a grueling journey to regain his health. Joseph McGuirk, DO, division director of hematologic malignancies and cellular therapeutics for the cancer center, led Col. Brennan’s complex care.
“Col. Brennan is a true American hero and a remarkable man,” Dr. McGuirk says. “During the course of his treatment, he shared many incredible stories of his extended family’s experiences serving our country. The Brennan family is representative of the foundation of safety and security our nation enjoys. Without them, and many like them, we would not have the life we have today. It was quite sobering and humbling to receive his and Alix’s sacred trust in providing his care.”
One step at a time
On October 30, 2014, Col. Brennan received a stem cell transplant. His brother Mike donated bone marrow to help rebuild a healthy blood supply.
“I was lucky,” Col. Brennan says. “We were bound to find a match among my 10 brothers and sisters. In fact, 2 of my brothers were as matched as you can get, and Mike was even my same blood type.”
“Butch and Mike are like 2 peas in a pod,” Alix adds. “Mike is a wonderful, kind person.”
Col. Brennan received Mike’s healthy blood cells to fight the leukemia. The treatment was successful, but it didn’t happen overnight.
“With AML, there is the potential for a lot of side effects, and I seemed to get them all,” Col. Brennan says. “To go from 160 pounds and strong as an ox to 115 pounds and fighting for my life, there was definitely an element of uncertainty. But I wasn’t going down without a fight.”
With the help of his doctors, nurses, family and friends, fight he did. He powered through the challenges of the transplant as well as almost 2 years of chronic graft-versus-host disease, a serious complication of transplant in which the donated cells attack the recipient’s body. He lost sight in his right eye for a period of time, and 3 vertebrae in his spine collapsed. He endured multiple eye and digestive system surgeries and numerous long hospital stays throughout his recovery.
“I’m still standing,” he says. “I’m living proof that you can survive this. My military background really helped me, I think. Having that physical and mental toughness I’d counted on for so many years helped me overcome.” He and Alix also credit the doctors and nurses of the cancer center’s blood and marrow transplant team.
“Dr. McGuirk was very straightforward, honest about the positives and the negatives of what was to come,” Col. Brennan says. “He is a great advocate for patients. It’s the nurses who understand the daily discomforts. They knew what I was going through. And they treated me with great dignity. That counts.”
“These nurses are very, very special people,” Alix adds. “They are so smart, kind and compassionate. I can’t say enough about them or find the right words. They are exceptional, day in and day out.”
In turn, Dr. McGuirk cites the crucial role the Brennans themselves played on the care team.
“Col. Brennan and Alix became highly educated and quite savvy about his condition,” he recalls. “They were informed and respectful and always requested frankness and honesty. Alix was an incredible caregiver – determined, loyal and loving. Having Alix around was like having another doctor or nurse on our team.”
At a point during Col. Brennan’s care, the prognosis appeared grim. Dr. McGuirk asked the couple if they’d prefer to shift focus to home care and comfort. “Col. Brennan said, ‘This information is helpful, but, no, sir, I am not ready for that,’” Dr. McGuirk says. Instead, he introduced the palliative care team to help Col. Brennan manage the effects of cancer treatment and optimize his quality of life while receiving care.
“We team with patients and their families to help them live as fully as possible through difficult treatments,” says palliative medicine specialist Karin Porter-Williamson, MD. “We are not end-of-life care providers, but rather offer an extra layer of support to help patients and families shoulder the physical, emotional and spiritual burden of living with and managing serious health issues.”
The University of Kansas Health System’s palliative care program was among the first in the nation to become fully integrated within a blood and marrow transplant program clinic.
“Our pilot program incorporating palliative care revealed an important complement to treatment for potentially devastating blood cancers,” Dr. McGuirk says. “It taught us how much more comprehensive care we can provide to our patients when we accompany curative treatment efforts with a focus on comfort and living with disease. We now have these thoughtful discussions on the front end of what can be trying journeys for patients and families.”
“We’re here to help our patients live as well as they can,” Dr. Porter-Williamson adds. “We give them a voice and serve as a safety net to explore their worries and fears as they strive to survive.”
Thankful for normal life
Today, Col. Brennan is thankful for small things.
“Everybody says it, but it’s really true,” he says. “When you might die, and you manage to come back from it, you realize the money, the house, the cars – it’s all irrelevant. It just doesn’t matter. You focus on your family, your relationships, fresh air.”
He loves spending time outdoors and with his grandchildren. The 14th is on the way. He thanks his doctors, nurses, brother, family and faith for getting him to where he is today.
“This battle with leukemia and GVHD was harder than anything I ever did in the military,” Col. Brennan says. “I had it bad. Any AML patient must have a guardian angel, and in my case, it was my wife, Alix. God gave me my lifeline through her. Even given all the outstanding treatment provided by the cancer center team and the prayers and support of my family and friends, if it weren’t for her love, caring and smarts, I would be a dead man. Now, I get to just be Butch Brennan again.”