Community Member


Brenda Van Heukelom


Date of Birth

August 16, 1977




Urbandale, IA

Primary Illness

Anaplastic Large Cell Lymphoma (Non-Hodgkin’s)/ Stem Cell Transplants



My story

This new journey began on October 27, 2009 when I noticed an ache in my armpit. After coming off a weekend of carving pumpkins with our 3 children, I figured it was a sore muscle. By that night I was able to feel a grape size lump in my right armpit. I started home therapy for infected lymph nodes with Motrin, heat and as the week progressively got worse with pain, night sweats and unable to sleep I went to my family doctor the following Monday. The area was now about 5cm in size and she put me on a heavy antibiotic for 10 days suspecting infected lymph nodes. After 5 days of antibiotics the area was not getting any better, actually worse so I was scheduled for a CT Scan the following Monday which showed multiple enlarged lymph nodes and recommended a biopsy be done the following Monday. After 50hrs of waiting, I was informed that the results were 80% lymphoma and my tissue was sent to Mayo for further testing and staging. As we waited another week, I had my first oncology appointment. But still many unknowns remained. I had a PET scan to show cancer spots and he saw that I not only have them in my Right armpit but also my shoulder area. A few days later I felt the other areas and developed chest pains. The Wednesday before Thanksgiving I got that dreaded call, I had a rare form of Non-Hodgkin’s called Anaplastic Large Cell. I began chemotherapy the following week that would continue every 21 days for 6 months.

God started preparing my heart in September. I felt something wasn’t right and was able to get my priorities in order in relation to my relationship with Christ and what idols I was putting before Him, my family- it is so easy to place them last and do other things and lastly my control and wanting everything to be perfect. The Friday after I found the lump, I received 2 devotionals that day about God being the ultimate physician and healer and the other talked about a story of a friend who has a rare form of cancer, she didn’t understand why but instead of dwelling on the negative she choose to use it to glorify God.
I am not in control of what is going on, but know God is and this all holds a plan and a bigger picture. I continue to pray that He is glorified through this process and blessings will be experienced throughout our 6 months of chemo not only in our family but anyone that we are in contact with as well.
God is a big God and cares deeply for each of us regardless of what we feel our “mountain” is— he wants us to go to Him in prayer and trust that he is in control.

April 2010, I was in remission. Nothing was found on the PET scan and we were back to life. By August 2010, I noticed some skin lesions. I thought they were bug bites since we had been in Colorado on vacation. I went to the dermatologist who agreed and gave me skin lotions to apply. Not only did the lesions begin to grow but I developed a fever 103.5 that would not go away. This landed me back to my local oncologist that agreed another biopsy of the skin lesions were in order which results came back as my cancer. Only 4 months in remission. Many thoughts swirled through my families mind but our strong faith kept bringing us back to God is in control and He will give us strength. The plan was chemotherapy to get me into remission than an autologous stem cell transplant (November 1-23). I donated my own stem cells prior to heavy dose chemotherapy that took my white count down to zero. We had a month away from our family as we underwent therapy in Omaha. We returned to our home in Iowa a day before Thanksgiving. We were all praying the cancer was gone. Since skin was involved this time, radiation was recommended. I started radiation for a month and ended in January, 2011. Only a few short weeks later I noticed a swollen lymph node in my neck and then another behind my ear. More scans and biopsies were performed concluding the cancer was back and in more places than the two I thought. Only a few short months of remission and we were headed back to Omaha for another stem cell transplant; this time using a donor. It would take a couple months to find a perfect match since my sister wasn’t. As we waited I participated in a clinical trial chemotherapy drug in hopes to achieve remission prior to the transplant. The trial worked and is now approved to the general public, but would not provide a cure in itself. I still needed the transplant. We got the call May 17, 2011 that I had 2- 100% matches. My donor ended up being from Germany and donated July 12. The precious cells were flown to Omaha, July 13th and the transplant began at 9:30pm. Prior to the transplant I went through more chemo and anti-rejection medication started to infuse over several days.
As I write, I am 130 days out from my transplant. I take over 15 pills a day including anti-rejection medication, antibiotics, anti-virals, anti-fungals, and mineral supplements. My energy is slowly increasing and my appetite is much to be desired. BUT my last PET scan showed all my lymph nodes are normal in size and no cancer activity. My family has kept their eyes focused on Christ, knowing He is in control and guiding our path. Nothing is impossible with Him. We have been on this journey for the past two years and have learned many life lessons. We take nothing for granted and appreciate the time we have together. Every day is a blessing and a gift.

Key Verses through this journey:
I can do everything through Him who gives me strength. Philippians 4:13

Consider it a sheer gift, friends, when tests and challenges come at you from all sides. You know that under pressure, your faith life is forced into the open and shows its true colors. James 1:2-3 (MSG)

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