Despite diagnosis, Anna Brauchler is on the road to healing

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Anna Brauchler (center right) of Paynesville was diagnosed with Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia in March 2017, just three months prior to her sixth birthday. The Brauchler family – (front) Everett, Anna, and (back) Matt and Becky – give a thumbs up as Anna is on the road to recovery. Submitted Photo

Do not fear for I am with you. Do not anxiously look about you, for I am your God. I will strengthen you; surely I will help you; surely I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.”

Isaiah 41:10

Childhood cancer are two words a family never wants to hear. “I did know, but I didn’t know,” said Becky Brauchler of her daughter Anna’s leukemia diagnosis.

For Becky and Matt Brauchler, Monday, March 27, 2017 – the day they were presented with their daughter’s test results – is the day cancer impacted their family.

Anna was diagnosed with Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia (ALL), a form of childhood cancer – which can also be found in adults – of the blood and bone marrow, just three months before her sixth birthday last spring.

Though each day may bring new challenges for the family, the Brauchlers – backed by faith, family, and friends – are on the road to healing.

‘#ThumbsupAnna’

Anna was born to Becky (Schaumann), a 2002 PHS graduate, and Matt Brauchler, a 2000 PHS graduate, on June 5, 2011. She is the youngest of the faily, joined by her almost eight-year-old brother Everett.

Created by Anna’s aunt,  Katie, ‘#ThumbsupAnna,’ was a fitting title for a local benefit that was organized by the family’s church, Crystal Hills Assembly.

“On one of my Facebook picture posts, Anna was in her princess dress in her hospital bed, with bunny ears and sunglasses, giving us a thumbs up,” said Matt. “Then my sister-in-law commented on the post, saying ‘#Thumbsup-Anna,’ and it stuck.”

“It is kind of funny because looking back on pictures before all of this and calling it #ThumbsupAnna, Anna would always stick her thumbs up in pictures,” said Becky. “So it was cute and kind of catchy.”

A ‘#ThumbsupAnna’ benefit was held on Saturday, July 8, at Crystal Hills.

“It was awesome,” said Becky. “It was overwhelming, incredible, and more than we could of asked for. Definitely something that we will never forget.” 

A spaghetti dinner, silent auction, and activities for the children including snow cones, horse rides, bouncy castles, face painting, balloon animals, a dunk tank, mini golf, and music were held during the benefit. “It wasn’t really just Paynesville,” said Becky. “It was beyond that, which was just crazy.”

“Becky’s aunt helped in the kitchen for 11 hours,” said Matt. “And all we had to do was show up. It was very humbling.”

Donations for the family can be made electronically via the webpage http://www.gofundme.com/thumbsupanna. The link can be shared on Facebook and Twitter.

“It was a bit humbling for Becky’s sister to suggest that,” said Matt of the GoFundMe page. “It’s crazy what people will do for you,” added Becky. “We don’t have any expectations for what people should donate. It’s hard to ask people for money, and we are really not asking for donations.”

Becky recently started a CaringBridge website titled http://www.caringbridge.org/visit/thumbsupanna, which allows the family to provide updates on Anna.

Anna is the granddaughter of Roger and Gladys Schaumann and Bob and Sue Brauchler, all of Paynesville. Matt is employed by Dell EMC, located in Eden Prairie, Minn. “I actually interviewed for the job the second day we found out Anna had leukemia,” said Matt. “Our pastor and his wife came to sit with Becky in the waiting room. The interview had been scheduled for a few weeks, and we decided it was something I had to do.”

Becky is employed by Crystal Hills Assembly as a part-time worship leader.

At the benefit, Anna received a “prayer hands” quilt from the family’s church. When Anna got home, she was completely wrapped up in the blanket from head to toe, and she looked like a little bump, Becky wrote on the CaringBridge website. “What an amazing way to end the day,” said Becky. “She was completely covered by her blanket, by the hands of each other and everyone who is praying for her. That is how Saturday (the day of the benefit) felt for us. We were completely covered and wrapped up by their love and support. We are so grateful; God is so faithful.”

A Search for Answers

In November 2016, four months prior to her diagnosis, Becky had a feeling, deep down, something wasn’t right with Anna.

“I remember asking for prayers at church,” said Becky. “Because Anna was having aches and pains. Sometimes it was a rib hurting, or her back hurting, or headaches. But nothing we could put a finger on, and we just wrote it off as growing pains.”

In December, Becky recalls Anna having severe pain in the area of her sternum as they were leaving her parent’s house one evening. Prior to that, Anna had been sledding all day, and Becky thought she was sore from hitting bumps. “Everything I saw, I always had an explanation,” she said.

Then in January 2017, Anna had strep throat, but didn’t have the normal symptoms of the infection, said Becky. Her throat wasn’t even red, she added. Becky made an appointment at the local clinic, but gave it several days, and Anna was doing better, so Becky canceled the appointment. 

During her spell of illness, Becky noticed Anna’s fingernails looked white underneath and didn’t have that pink color they usually do, almost “anemia,” described Becky, and she was thinning out. “I felt concerned, but I justified what I was seeing, because she had grown a couple of inches.”

A few days later Becky, Everett, and Anna traveled to Kansas City with Matt on a “working vacation.” The second night they were there, Anna’s fever spiked, and she was brought to urgent care, where the test results came back positive for strep throat. “It was a sigh of relief,” said Becky. “It’s only strep. It was an easy fix.”

From there, Anna, never really bounced back, Becky recalls, even though the six-year-old seemed herself. As the weeks progressed on, Becky still knew, deep down, something wasn’t right.

“Sometimes I would look at her and think she looked so pale,” said Becky. “But then I would go, it is February and we live in Minnesota, and she is more fair skinned than Everett and I, so I would talk myself out of it.”

In the middle of March, Anna was sick for two weeks straight. It started with a cough, only at night, to the point she would vomit, Becky said. After two days of coughing, Becky brought Anna to the clinic for tests. The clinic performed a chest x-ray, a test for pertussis, and whopping cough. Again, all tests came back negative.

Within two days, her cough broke, but a fever had started on a Saturday night, Becky remembers. After a weekend of having a fever, Becky took Anna to the clinic to have her checked for strep throat again. The test came back negative. “We were told ‘It’s probably influenza,” Becky said. “But she didn’t have the normal signs of influenza. She didn’t lack the level of energy or have respiratory symptoms.”

“Her fever would disappear during the day and hit hard at night,” added Becky. “We could almost set a clock to it.”

Diagnosis

The next day, Becky brought Anna back to the clinic, and this time they tested for influenza, did a urinalysis test, and CBC (blood counts).

“I remember sitting and waiting in the clinic room, looking at Anna, who was sitting next to me, feeling so desperate for answers,” Becky wrote on the CaringBridge website. “For most people to look at her, they probably wouldn’t see it.”

After patiently waiting, the provider came into the room with the results. “Influenza came back negative and urinalysis looked good, but then the provider turned the computer screen towards me and told me, ‘I know you will know what these numbers mean,’” said Becky, a former laboratory technician. “We knew right away from that, it was either going to be leukemia or a bad virus.”

On the screen, there was a lot of yellow, which flags critical results. Anna’s white cell count was very low, neutrophils were critical, hemoglobin was low, not dangerously, but not normal either, Becky said.

“She called me and told me ‘You need to get in here, we have decisions to make,’” said Matt. “The decision was to check into the hospital here to see if it gets better, or go straight to Children’s Hospital in Minneapolis and go through the emergency room.”

“At this point, I said let’s go straight to Children’s,” said Becky. “If it ends up being a virus great; if not, we will at least in a place where the experts are.”

When they arrived to the Children’s Hospital, the Brauchlers weren’t prepared to spend the next eight days there. “We forgot to pack pajamas, so we had to sleep in our  jeans,” said Becky with a chuckle. “Anna had a hospital gown, so she was fine.”

They arrived at Children’s Hospital at 7 p.m. on Friday, March 24, and were admitted to the seventh floor, Childhood Pediatric and Blood Disorders Center, at 3:30 a.m.  on Saturday, March 25 and spent the next two days waiting for Anna to improve.

Monday, March 27, rolled around and Anna’s numbers were still not improving, so the next step was do to a bone marrow biopsy, to see what was going on, said Becky.

“I still remember walking away from the room with a volunteer, and I could hear the beep from Anna’s heart monitor fading as we walked further down the hall,” Becky wrote on the CaringBridge webiste. “That was the hardest thing I have ever down in my life. But in that moment, I thought about how God asked Abraham to sacrifice his son, Isaac. God wasn’t asking me to sacrifice my daughter, but was I willing to trust her completely in his hands? Yes!”

Around 4 p.m., that same day, Dr. Chu, Anna’s doctor, presented the results to them. “She simply opened up the door and said ‘It’s leukemia’ and proceeded to tell us the next steps,” said Becky. “She didn’t give it time to build up. She didn’t even sit down. I appreciated that so much.”

“I think we knew it was going to be something like that,” recalled Matt. “It was hard. Being the man, so to speak, you want to be the strong one, so I maintained as much composure as I could. I may have gone out to the parking ramp garage once or twice.”

“We finally had the answer we were looking for the past three months,” added Matt. “And it almost felt good to finally know what was wrong with Anna.”

The following day, Anna, started her journey.

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Anna, a natural animal lover, enjoyed a visit from a hamster during one of her recent stays at the Children’s Hospital. 

Anna’s Journey

Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia is a type of cancer that occurs when a bone marrow cell develops errors in its DNA. The term “acute” refers to the disease progressing rapidly and creating immature blood cells, rather than mature ones, while “lymphocytic” refers to the white blood cells called lymphocytes, which ALL affects.

Acute Lymphocytic Leukemia is the most common type of cancer in children. With treatment, it generally results in a good chance of a cure. The children’s hospital considers this type of leukemia their “bread and butter,” as this type of cancer is very common, according to the couple.

The day following the diagnosis, Anna had surgery to install a chest port used for administrating chemotherapy treatments and other medications, as well as for withdrawing blood for analysis.

Also, while she was in surgery, Anna had a  lumbar puncture done, and her first dose of chemotherapy, which started the 30-day introduction treatment. Anna’s main treatment was steroids and chemotherapy. “The steroids really  changed her a bit,” Matt recalled.

“And on top of that, Anna got induced steroid diabetes,” said Becky. “This happens every so often, which made Anna a diabetic while she was on steroids.”

“Honestly, the hardest part of the first 30 days was giving Anna insulin shots,” said Becky. “At first we didn’t know what it was because Anna was having headaches,” said Matt. “At one of her appointments, Becky was telling the doctor this, and they ordered more blood work. Her blood sugar was over 700, which is off the chart.” The Brauchlers were immediately checked back into the seventh floor of Children’s Hospital to help maintain her blood sugar and manage her levels.

“Through out it all, yeah it was hard, but we just got through it and did it,” said Becky of the first 30 days.

While being a diabetic, Anna couldn’t eat what she wanted, said Becky, but “our saving grace was that she loves bacon and would literally go through two pounds of bacon a day.”

“It was a free snack. She didn’t have to get a shot for bacon. If she would wake up in the middle of the night hungry, she would get bacon,” added Matt. “I remember that was one of my updates on Facebook and we had a family-friend drop off three pounds of bacon.”

“Once she started to wean off her steroids, she was getting better,” said Matt of referring to Anna’s high blood sugar levels. “We’re very thankful that she didn’t have type one diabetes.”

The first 30 days are often called induction. The goal of induction chemotherapy is to achieve a remission. This means that leukemia cells are no longer found in bone marrow samples, the normal marrow cells return, and the blood counts become normal. (A remission is not necessarily a cure.) “It’s like carpet bombing,” said Matt. “You just throw everything (treatments) at it (cancer).”

“They said it is equivalent of dropping nuclear bombs on the cancer to get rid of it,” added Becky. “There was a lot going on, but it is done, and on day 30, they did a bone marrow biopsy, and she is in remission already, which is the plan and that is what they want.”

“Nonetheless, we are so thankful she is in remission,” added Becky.

“Some kids show up and their bone marrow is 99.9 percent cancer, like leukemia, but her’s was 57 percent leukemia,” said Matt. “So she still had some bone marrow to produce the things her body needed. We are very fortunate there.”

The next phase – consolidation, which Anna is currently in – typically lasts to one to two months. Anna has completed three rounds of chemotherapy and has three more to go, in able to move onto the next phase, if everything comes back good. This phase reduces the number of leukemia cells still in the body.  Several chemotherapy drugs are combined to help prevent the remaining leukemia cells from developing resistance.

“Since all of her tests came back favorable, they were able to put her in a low-risk category,” said Matt. “Because of that, we were able to choose  a less intense type of treatment for Anna. There is still chemotherapy, but a little lighter.”

“On day eight (of the 30 days), they tested for MRD (minimal residual disease), a marker to see how well her body is responding to the treatment,” said Becky. “A very small percentage of kids are MRD negative on day eight, and she was negative. That was a good sign that her body was responding to treatment.”

The third phase: maintenance. During the first few months of maintenance, most treatment plans include one to two repeat treatments similar to the induction phase.

The Brauchler’s were discharged on Friday, March 31. What a difference a week makes,” wrote Becky on the CaringBridge website. “It changed our lives, but there have been so many good things, so many reminders that God is walking this with us and no one loves Anna more than he does. And there is truly peace that passes all understanding.”

‘Take It as It Comes’

The Brauchlers approach to Anna’s diagnose is ‘take it as it comes,’ or take each day as it comes and often live in the moment, cherishing every laugh, every embrace, and every minute they can all together as a family.

“We had some rough moments,” said Becky. “But we have peace with it. God is helping us, and our families, friends, and church family have been awesome.”

“She is doing awesome; rocking it,” agreed the couple. “She kicked it (cancer),” added Matt.

Anna does have a good understanding of what is happening and that she is sick, according to Becky. “When the nurse was in our room drawing pictures and describing the bone marrow process, Anna was listening. A little bit later, Anna was drawing her bones, explaining what was happening to them.”

To help ease Anna’s mind and thoughts, Matt and Becky try to explain things in a simple form, so they don’t make her nervous/overwhelm her.

“I was really freaked out about her losing her hair,” said Becky. “One night Anna noticed her hair was coming out, but I explained to her that some of the medication she was taking can do that, and remarkably, she was okay with that. We took it as it came.”

Despite Anna’s diagnosis, Anna is a typical six-year-old girl, who can be a goofball sometimes, loves playing outside, is always happy, and loves playing with Everett. In addition, she loves to draw and be crafty, do role playing, and is a natural animal lover. “She is very fun,” said Becky.

If there’s one thing Matt and Becky want people to take away from this journey, it’s don’t lose your faith. “Let this be a testimony,” said Matt of his daughter’s journey. “If you don’t have a faith, get it. Sometimes unfortunate things happen in life, and you want someone to rely on. There is more to life than objects and money.”

Becky says to trust that little voice inside you when you don’t think something is right. “Trust your instincts.”

Family’s Gratitude

Despite the difficult journey, the Brauchlers have a lot to be thankful for. “There have been so many good things through the whole process,” said Becky. “When we are going through the hard stuff, we hold onto the good stuff.”

Since Anna’s cancer diagnosis, the family has received outpouring of support from friends, family, college friends, co-workers, and community members.

“People have surrounded us,” said Becky. “We have a lot to be thankful for, and now we just have to walk the journey and jump through any hoops they tell us until her healing is complete.”

“People came out of the woodwork for us,” said Matt. “It really shows a community and family that care and take care of the sick.”

While staying at Children’s Hospital, the staff were phenomenal, added Matt. While there, Anna enjoys crafts, visiting animals, receiving massages, and playing games with her mom. They made her stay very comfortable. “We make the most of it,” said Becky of their stays in the hospital.

Matt and Becky are fortunate that Matt’s new job and employer is very understanding. They couldn’t imagine leaving Anna alone while receiving treatments.

Throughout this journey, it really has changed our perspective, but a lot of it has been good, said Becky. “We are people of faith and believe in God.”

“We have talked about this before,” said Matt of having a strong faith to help guide them through this journey. “We can’t image not having a faith in God, church, or a church family. I could not image it. We know who to put our hands into, and that is God.”

“The medical people have been great and know what they are doing, but ultimately, God brought us to the point of Anna being diagnosed as early as she was,” said Becky. “God brought us to the right people, and the timing of it was perfect.”

The Brauchlers, with their deepest and sincere gratitude, extend a thank you to all who have offered prayers, monetary donations, and other kindnesses.

“Don’t feel sorry for us, but pray for us,” they agreed. “Prayers are always appreciated.”

Created by Anna’s aunt,  Katie, ‘#ThumbsupAnna,’ was a fitting title for a local benefit that was organized by the family’s church, Crystal Hills Assembly.

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Created by Anna’s aunt, Katie, #ThumbsUpAnna was a fitting title for a benefit held for the Brauchler family by Crystal Hills Assembly in July.
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