Brendan Zurica has lived only 23 years on this earth, but he’s experienced more challenges in those years than many do in a lifetime. After dealing with a persistent cough for a couple of months, just two weeks before he turned 17 years old, Brendan found himself at the pediatrician getting a chest x-ray that revealed a mass. He was sent on to Children’s Hospital of Atlanta at Scottish Rite, where a CT-scan uncovered the truth: Brendan had diffuse large B-cell lymphoma—a type of non-Hodgkin's lymphoma.
“That was a really difficult time,” Brendan reflects. “I didn’t know about the cure rate—if it was aggressive or not. My first thought was, Am I going to die? And it was really overwhelming.”
Thankfully, Brendan soon found out that this specific type of cancer was very curable, which put him more at ease. Of course, he couldn’t know what was to come on this unpredictable journey.
The next six months would involve intense chemotherapy to battle the fast-growing cancer. Brendan shares that the treatment phase was fast, but it took a toll. “I didn’t realize it until a few years later because it happened right before my senior year of high school—which is the time when you’re thinking about what’s next,” Brendan explains of the impact the time away from high school made on his life. “So not having that first semester of my senior year of high school didn’t give me a chance to think about those things—because what was on my mind was treatment, my health and everything else with that.”
Thankfully, the news was good in December—the treatment was a success, and Brendan was cleared to go back to school in January and finish out his senior year. And for a season, all seemed well. For the next three years, Brendan was able to live a normal life, going to school, working, making plans for his future...
But just as he was starting to figure out what was next in his life, familiar symptoms began to appear. Eventually the symptoms got so bad that Brendan went back in for a CT-scan, and, sure enough, the cancer was back. Brendan was admitted back to the hospital and began his second round of treatment in early September of 2017.
Unfortunately, the second battle was not going to be as quick or “easy” as the first. As they repeated the three-step process that had worked the first time around, it wasn’t working so well this time. Only 30-40% of the cancer was killed, and it just kept coming back. They moved on to more and different treatments, but nothing seemed to work.
In February of 2018, however, hope rose. Brendan received an immunotherapy treatment that worked very well, killing about 90% of his cancer. Brendan was feeling good—and optimistic.
Unfortunately, those feelings would be short-lived, as just as Brendan anticipated remission, he relapsed again. The cancer began to grow, and to mutate. “It was that point we didn’t know what was next. We ran out of options,” Brendan remembers. “It was at that point where I thought, this could be it. I might not make it.”
Brendan says he realized then that he had to start focusing on how to cope with his feelings—of how to prepare for what might be next, and how to stay as positive as he could for his friends and family. All of these feelings started to overwhelm him, so he finally decided to seek out therapy.
Eventually, Brendan was connected with Dr. Upshaw, a clinical psychologist at CHOA. This relationship would prove to be highly beneficial to Brendan’s mental and even physical health. “We’ve just built up a relationship over these past few years, and that’s really what got me through it,” he explains. “And having a positive mindset helped me make these decisions about my treatments.”
In the meantime, Brendan had been working with his team to find clinical trials that might be an option for his situation. They finally found a trial based in California that proved to be a turning point. As Brendan received a relatively new immunotherapy regimen to prepare for the clinical trial, the immunotherapy worked so well that soon Brendan found himself declared in remission, bypassing the clinical trial altogether!
In order to have more certainty of lasting remission, the next step was to have another bone marrow transplant. But it wasn’t a done deal—Brendan could choose whether or not to have the transplant. And if he chose to go through with the transplant, he also had to choose from several options... “There was high-dose radiation with chemo. Low-dose radiation with chemo. Or no radiation at all. And since I had had two years of intense chemo, it’s like, okay, there is a chance this high-dose radiation could kill you. So, for a few weeks, I was trying to decide between high-dose or low-dose. Or if I even wanted to do the transplant. Cause I had hit remission.”
Brendan said the hardest part of that season was making the decision. He talked with his parents through it all, and he took their opinions into consideration. But, unlike the first diagnosis when he was 16, Brendan was now an adult, signing his own papers and making his own decisions. Ultimately, Brendan decided to go through with the transplant, and the radiation decision was taken out of his hands when a scan revealed his body was too weak to handle the radiation. So, in March of 2020, after a round of chemo to prepare, Brendan went in for his transplant.
And it worked! “And I’ve been here since,” Brendan says with a smile. “Just dealing with the side effects of transplant, and recovery, and just healing physically and mentally.”
In reflecting on both of his long hospital stays in a children’s hospital, Brendan has mostly positive things to say. He remembers feeling out of place at CHOA as a teenager, where most of the activities and amenities were catered to younger kids. But Brendan speaks with fondness of his return years later as a young adult to the hospital where he already had relationships with the doctors, nurses, and staff. He felt like they treated him like the adult he was, despite having pediatric cancer. “Even though it was a children’s hospital, it felt good going in there,” he reflects. “This is a place that will take care of me. And these are people who I’ve known forever, and people who I trust and feel safe with. And it felt good.”
Through it all, Brendan doesn’t speak of any regrets, save one: he wishes he had accepted the offer of help with mental health sooner. “Don’t wait too long,” he encourages anyone in a similar position. “It took me basically getting to my lowest point to finally seek it out. You have a lot to think about, and talking it out really unscrambles those thoughts, so you can just understand things... And for me, that’s what I enjoyed about it and why I continued to go for such a long time. Every week I could learn something new about myself. And if I had a problem come up, I could go and talk it out and get resolution in a healthy way.”
Brendan says therapy allowed him to think about all he had lost, but also what he had gained. And mostly, it helped him gain a sense of perspective. “And for me, perspective is very important,” Brendan shares. “It helps me stay humble. Just to not take life for granted and to appreciate every moment.”
But that appreciation for life can also bring with it some heavy expectations, Brendan explains. He refers to it as the “untold pressures of survivor’s guilt.” “You beat cancer, and it’s like, what’s next? I’ve been given this second, third, fourth chance by now. And whether people expect you to or not, you just feel this pressure to be great—to make something of yourself, because you’ve been given this chance. And it’s unhealthy because you start to deal with survivor’s guilt as well, because you’re like, okay, well, I made it, and other people weren’t as lucky. Now I can’t fail. Now I have to be great. I have to do so many things now because other people couldn’t.”
When it comes to handling the pressure of survivorship, Brendan says, “I think it all comes down to the right pace. Don’t push yourself too hard and burn out; don’t waste time as well. It’s all about balance.”
While there are symptoms and side effects that Brendan recognizes may never go away, he has ultimately found peace and happiness in his “new normal.” “Right now, I think I’m happier than I was before the second diagnosis. I think I’m getting back to how I felt at 16 before my first diagnosis. Because I took the time and I let myself know it’s okay to be patient—you don’t' have to rush recovery. Because if you do, it’s not going to go well.”
“You need to take the time to focus on what’s important,” he continues. “Before the second diagnosis, I was at a point in my life, where I had everything I wanted—you know, job, work, school, hobbies—but I wasn’t the person I wanted to be. I think that person was going to burn out. But having this second diagnosis and all this time to reflect on it, it’s allowed me to really focus on who I want to become and then get those things back that I always wanted. So now I feel the best I’ve been in years.”
Brendan Zurica is from Lawrenceville, Georgia, where he enjoys playing soccer and video games and learning about geography and psychology. Brendan was interviewed in season 4 of The Lighthouse Podcast, which is where he first shared his story with us. To hear more stories like Brendan’s, be sure to subscribe wherever you listen to podcasts.