Learning to live in the now

Credit: Contributed by Jodi Brooks

Credit: Contributed by Jodi Brooks

The power of optimism sustains Jodi Brooks in her battle with brain cancer.

It was a warm, cloudy afternoon in June 2020, four months into the pandemic. Jodi Brooks was walking down Nelson Street near her Brooklyn neighborhood, talking on the phone with her sister and nephew, discussing his middle school graduation gift. When Brooks asked her nephew a question, his answer made no sense. She strained to understand his words, becoming overwhelmed with confusion. She tried to speak but couldn’t. Overcome with dizziness, she had an urgent need to sit down. That’s the last thing Brooks remembers before waking up in an ambulance.

“Her sister called and told me something was wrong,” Sam Brooks, her husband of 12 years, recalled. “I used a tracking app on my phone and found her on a sidewalk, surrounded by emergency workers. When they put her in the ambulance, she was screaming in pain because her shoulder had been dislocated when she fell, and she was staring right through me, like she didn’t know me.”

Jodi, I am your husband, Sam! he shouted. That is your son, he said pointing to Jonah.

“That’s when a light came on,” said Sam. “She recognized Jonah, then she passed out.”

Jodi Brooks, now 47, had experienced a seizure. At the hospital, doctors discovered what they thought was a benign tumor, the size of a walnut, on the speech center of her brain. Eleven days after her seizure, she underwent a craniotomy to remove most of the tumor. They couldn’t remove all of it for fear she would lose the ability to speak.

After the surgery, she got the official diagnosis: level 3 glioblastoma. It has since changed to level 4.

“We were all baffled,” said Brooks. “My family and I had so many questions. What is glioblastoma? Why is this happening? How did this happen? How long has the tumor been there? We had no family history of cancer. Just, how?”

Credit: Contributed by Jodi Brooks

Credit: Contributed by Jodi Brooks

Facing reality

Glioblastoma is a malignant cancer that affects the brain and spinal cord. It can strike anyone at any age but is more common in older people. Symptoms include vomiting, nausea, headache and seizures. It is non-genetic in nature, quickly developing and the reasons for its occurrence are unknown. Treatment involves surgery, radiation and chemotherapy. The median survival time for someone with glioblastoma is 15 months.

But doctors were hopeful. They considered Brooks’ surgery successful, and she returned to work a few weeks later as managing partner at Finn Partners, a worldwide marketing agency.

Before COVID, Brooks commuted by subway to the headquarters in New York, worked eight to 10 hours days and traveled across the United States one week each month. Since COVID and her diagnosis, she works from home, still averaging eight-hour workdays.

She’s grateful for the support she’s gotten from her CEO and colleagues, especially her work friend Katie Seigenthaler, who endured her own battle with cancer involving her child.

“Once Jodi was diagnosed with glioblastoma, she and I took our friendship to another level,” said Seigenthaler. “I was blown away by her insistence on hearing, absorbing and dealing with the truth, always. She asked this of me: to always be straight with her. She is not afraid of the fear. She does not pretend to be brave, does not parrot the typical survivor language so ubiquitous in the cancer world, and, consequently, is the bravest and most optimistic of all. I am in awe of her.”

Power of optimism

Brooks’ attitude toward cancer mirrors that of her professional work ethic. She is relentless in building relationships, ferocious when it comes to finding solutions.

A year after her surgery, she made two big moves. She transferred her care to Dr. Henry Friedman of the Robert Tisch Brain Tumor Center at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina. And she and her family moved to Johns Creek to be closer to her cousins and her doctor, who she affectionately calls “Dr. Henry.”

“I would not be here if not for Dr. Henry,” said Brooks. “I’m so thankful for him. I love him. My first doctors in New York didn’t expect me to still be here, but I am because of Dr. Henry. Finding the right doctor is everything.”

Dr. Friedman, 70, has practiced neuro-oncology since 1981. While he responds humbly to Jodi’s praise, he does acknowledge that the team at Duke has a philosophy that, he believes, positively affects their patients.

“The foundation of our entire program is ‘at Duke there is hope,’” said Dr. Friedman. “No matter the outcome, we believe we’ll do better within that framework and give the patients’ time more meaning. We believe the positive approach is the right approach.”

Brooks has undergone multiple chemotherapy and radiation treatments, and she goes to Duke every eight weeks for an MRI. A recent scan revealed the tumor had grown.

“It’s hard not to be upset, because, obviously, if it grows, that’s not good,” said Brooks. “But Dr. Henry immediately says, ‘OK, we’ll try something else. We still have other options.’ Then I feel a bit of relief. There’s still something to work for, there’s still hope.”

Dr. Friedman is a big believer in the power of optimism.

“There have been great books written about the physiological manifestations in the body from having an optimistic approach, “Anatomy of Hope” by Dr. Gerome Groopman being one of the best,” said Dr. Friedman. “Jodi is embracing our philosophy and she’s capable of fighting the fight. If she weren’t, she’d die … I’ve been accused of giving false hope, but I disagree with that. The majority of people with glioblastoma will die, yes, but a rising number will not. Jodi lives to fight another day.”

Credit: Contributed by Jodi Brooks

Credit: Contributed by Jodi Brooks

Focus on the present

Brooks said she lives her life with a sharper perspective now. What is important versus what is frivolous is much clearer, and where she dedicates her time and energy is sacred.

“Life is a precious gift, but even more precious is the quality of life. Focus on being present for every experience, big and small. Think about your legacy, and act on that every day,” she said. “Your legacy isn’t something bold or grandiose, it is the stamp you make on the world. Every day we impact others, and that is what makes all of this so incredible.”

Brooks has worked hard to maintain normality in her life. Despite exhaustion and the roller coaster of changes in her body, she is determined to cook dinner, do her job well and play tennis. Her family and friends buoy her spirits, fill the gaps, drive her to appointments and are ready and willing to do anything she needs. In return, Brooks strives to continue being a good friend, a hard worker and a good wife. Her greatest focus, she said, is 10-year-old Jonah.

“Life with Jonah feels as normal as can be, because I refuse to have it any other way,” said Brooks. “He knows everything that’s going on, but I still want to give him the best of me. Sure, there are times I’m angry and times I cry, because this just shouldn’t be and it’s unfair, but I choose not to do that around him. I may start worrying about being at Jonah’s bar mitzvah in two years, but I work hard to correct that thinking. I’m still here. I’m going to see him off to college one day.”

Friends have told Brooks she should quit her job and travel to places she’s always dreamed of visiting, but she refuses to do that because that sounds like she’s dying.

“My counselor once asked if a doctor told me I’m dying,” said Brooks. “The answer was no; my doctor hadn’t said that. So, the counselor said, ‘Unless the doctor says you’re dying, you’re living.’ It’s so simple, but it’s beautiful. One day they may say I’m dying, but until then, I’m going to live.”