Stories of Hope
Article date: May 1, 2001
In a matter of minutes, I turned around and said 'I want the surgery.' My children were three and five and I wanted to live.
In 1995, when Brenda Elsagher learned she had rectal cancer -- and would need an immediate colostomy -- she cautiously sought just one thing: a second opinion. Forty-eight hours later, though, all that changed. Further tests revealed that the cancer had not spread -- and she had an epiphany, the first of what would be many in her life, post-diagnosis.
"In a matter of minutes, I turned around and said 'I want the surgery.' My children were three and five and I wanted to live."
Thus began Brenda's journey into self-awareness, actualization and action. The past six years have seen this Minneapolis woman of 44 struggle to regain her health, and then conquer a slew of dreams with new found determination: Stand-up comic, author, health nut.
"One thing leads to another," says Brenda, of her discoveries based on her recent passages as a cancer survivor. "I've started to look at other wishes -- I had never gone to college, and I decided I would start college -- at age 41."
Brenda says her life was always like a big, comfortable patchwork quilt: she's a hairdresser, a Roman Catholic who married an immigrant Egyptian who is Muslim, the mother of two, a frustrated comedienne who for years longed to take the microphone at a comedy club and call it like she sees it. On a whim, she entered a contest called The Twin Cities Funniest Person Contest, and walked away with the title.
"There was a little media blitz after that and a reporter asked me what I did and I said 'public speaking' -- even though I never had done that. When she asked me the title of my talk, I said 'Humor in Crisis.' When that was broadcast, people started calling me and asked me to come and talk. I then found that humor helped me so much along the way."
It took her a year to include cancer jokes -- or her own special perspective on the disease that nearly took her life -- in her presentation. "I was going through too much physically. But once at an American Cancer Society benefit, I decided to start telling some jokes about what I had gone through. Now, I'm comfortable with the one liners."
In fact, Brenda is one of the ACS's most popular speakers in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area. She has given talks that rally volunteers for the chapter's ACS Relay For Life, and she participated in the fundraiser last spring, spearheading four teams that raised $14,000 in a successful $143,000 relay that surpassed all goals.
She has also started to publicly urge people to have annual colonoscopies. Typical of her new attitude to help others through humor, she's just finished writing about her experiences in a book she hopes to publish called "You Just Might Live: A Cancer Survivor's Story of Humor and Hope."
"That was a leap of faith for me, having never taken a writing class," she says. "I went from being reactive to proactive. I had to figure out what I needed to live. When I was diagnosed, I had to make some quick and very important decisions. I was a hairdresser -- and not a medical doctor -- and it was not until I'd seen my eighth doctor in two weeks that [the details of my proposed surgery] were explained to me. What he said made the decision for me. I was so relieved."
Since her 1995 diagnosis, Brenda returned to the hospital twice to undergo major surgery relating to her "battle wounds" -- her colostomy. "Now, I haven’t been in the hospital for two years and I feel back to my old energetic self. I live with my colostomy every day. My children are now eight and 11 and every day I am grateful to wake up and see them. I told them on Christmas morning that 'I'm thankful just to see you on Christmas day -- that makes me really happy.' "
Her experience, she says, has given her life more gravity, made her well-rounded and an achiever of dreams who relishes every minute. "I see a woman who has known real joy and real physical suffering," she says. "But I don't think I'd trade it. I love people more deeply now. Every moment is a choice. My biggest problem is I have too many desires and not enough time to do them."