Yesterday at Above + Beyond Cancer, we lost one of our family members. Kerri Ann Brenner was 33 years old and left behind an adorable 3-year-old daughter, Lily, and an adoring husband, Travis. She passed away in Des Moines yesterday afternoon, shortly after saying goodbye to Lily.
Kerri was a participant in our January expedition to Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania. Kilimanjaro is the highest peak in Africa, and would be considered by many to be an unusual destination for a woman who had never been camping and whose only trips outside the United States had been on warm cruises in the Caribbean. Kerri’s application certainly wasn’t the first one we received for the program, but it also wasn’t the last. In her application she confessed that her delay in applying was primarily due to her “mommy instinct” telling her that two weeks was too long to be away. Doing things for herself wasn’t something that came naturally to Kerri. She lived her life in the service of others.
Kerri grew up in Colfax, Iowa, a small agricultural town of about 2,000 people in rural central Iowa. In high school she played every sport. She ran cross-country and track, and she played softball, volleyball, and basketball. She also played in the band, where, after eight years of practice, she reached the level of first chair clarinet. (A fact she proudly included in her Kilimanjaro application under the category of “qualifications.”)
After high school, Kerri enrolled at Mercy College in Des Moines, where she graduated in 1999. After graduating, she worked for Iowa Orthopedic Surgeons in Des Moines as an x-ray tech. She met and then married the guy of her dreams, Travis, in April 2006. The young couple was excited to start their own family and in August of 2008, they welcomed their baby girl, Lily. Kerri lived in a state of awe and profound love for her daughter, and Lily quickly became the center of Kerri’s universe.
In January of 2010 (at the age of 31), Kerri found a lump in her chest during a regular self-examination. She immediately scheduled a mammogram, and was told that she had a fibroadenoma, a noncancerous (benign) cyst. However eleven-months later, in December, she had a biopsy which determined that the growth was a triple-negative, invasive ductile carcinoma. On December 29, Kerri had a lumpectomy and four lymph nodes removed, followed by chemotherapy and Taxol. During chemotherapy, an additional lump was discovered and excised, and three more lymph nodes were removed. Kerri then underwent radiation treatment, which was completed just five weeks before she applied to join our team in Africa.
Perhaps it was the courage she gained through her treatment that caused her to send in the application for Kilimanjaro. Perhaps she wanted to see the world. Knowing Kerri, it’s more likely she applied because she was looking for a few new friends who might understand what she had been through and who might help her find the next steps in her journey a bit more easily. Whatever the reason, ten weeks after her last radiation treatment, Kerri led our group of 40 to Africa.
Kerri certainly wasn’t the only person that spent the first night on the trail crying, but she was definitely the loudest. In the darkness of that African night, the separation from Lily had become unbearable and her decision to skip an anniversary cruise with Travis for a climbing trip with a group of cancer survivors probably seemed to her to be an incomprehensible mistake.
But the next morning the sun came up, and as the tents began to unzip we found Kerri wrapped-up in her tent in the arms of a new friend – a friend who had walked the same path that Kerri had walked and was seeking the same answers that Kerri was seeking. As the morning light warmed their tent, Kerri quietly sipped a cup of tea and she smiled. In her smile, there was a new look of contentment and confidence. It was the look of a person who suddenly has a new understanding of life’s mysteries, and a person who suddenly sees her role in those mysteries with new clarity.
Like so many of our friends and family, Kerrie left us too soon. As we sit here in this darkness – in this world filled with cancer – it is easy for us to become overwhelmed by fear as we struggle to find the energy to continue our fight. But in this darkness we have two things. We are together, and through our community we gain courage and strength. And we are filled with memories of our extraordinary friend, and through those memories we have been inspired.