What Kennedy Branham, a Lexington teen battling cancer, is thankful for this Thanksgiving

jholleman@thestate.comNovember 27, 2013 

The thought is unfathomable, yet unavoidable at this time of Thanksgiving, considering what has swirled around young Kennedy Branham for the past 21 months.

A parent never could be thankful for a child having contracted cancer, but parents and a child can understand how the horrible changes going on in that young body can prompt uplifting changes all around.

“It’s even hard to say, as bad as this is, but what she’s blossomed into and what she’s chosen to do with this, for a mom to witness, it just makes me so happy,” Erin Branham says, choking up as she hears her own words.

How can this be? How can a family that’s gone through so much heartache dwell instead on the joys?

To understand, you only have to meet Kennedy. See her smile. Feel her glow. Listen to her steer a conversation from the negative to the positive.

Asked what she’s thankful for, she reels off a list.

“I’m thankful that we have such a supportive community,” says Kennedy, reclining in her favorite easy chair in her family’s living room after downing nearly a dozen pills. “And I’m thankful for God. I’m thankful for family and friends. I’m thankful for the curiosity … and the generosity, the love and support.”

You might have seen the Pray4Kennedy signs and car magnets that began popping up all over the Midlands in spring 2012. They’re just the most visible manifestations of an amazing journey that began when Kennedy was diagnosed with a rare form of brain cancer just days before the Lexington child’s 13th birthday.

Not only did Kennedy have glioblastoma, but her tumor also was in a region of the brain that made it impossible for surgeons to completely remove it. Eventually, it would kill her, the doctors said. But four days after her first surgery, Kennedy walked into her uncle’s wedding. She wasn’t going to miss that moment.

As word of her battle spread, people she never had met clamored to help Kennedy.

The Lexington High School baseball team adopted her. They shaved their heads to match her chemo-caused baldness, and they pledged to win the state championship in her honor. They didn’t quite make it in 2012, so the next year their motto was “Finish it for Kennedy.” They did this time, and Kennedy got to help lift the championship trophy that night.

“They say that she’s given them strength to play harder and to sweat more and to fight harder on the field, they’ve also given her strength to fight a little bit harder and to get though the pain,” Erin says. “They’ve been such a support group for her. There’s nothing like having a good-looking bunch of young men who have hearts of gold taking care of a young girl.”

The Wildcat baseball team didn’t forget Kennedy after that championship season. They helped put up Christmas decorations at her house to greet her after her most recent stay in the hospital.

But the baseball players were just a few in the multitude. Lexington High senior Rivers Bedenbaugh invited Kennedy to the 2012 prom. A group that helps grant wishes for sick children paid for a trip to the Bahamas, where Kennedy got to swim with dolphins. Allen Mitchell, the former USC quarterback and friend of the Branham family, mentioned Kennedy to one of his friends, who decided to pay for her to take a trip to Paris. (Mitchell’s death last summer hit the family harder than any of Kennedy’s tough chemo sessions.)

And all along, Kennedy gave as much as she got.

At the Palmetto Health Children’s Hospital, kids get credit for each needle stuck in their bodies, which can be used to pick toys from a hospital cache. Kennedy got stuck a lot, and she used her credit to pick out toys she gave to the younger kids.

“She’s never cried about it,” Erin says. “She’s asked why, but she’s never crying or upset or been sad because she’s always taking the positive route. It’s never stopped her.”

Erin says she’s especially thankful for the Children’s Center for Cancer and Blood Disorders at Palmetto Health Children’s Hospital.

“They take such good care of all the kids there at the Children’s Hospital,” Erin says. “They go above and beyond.”

Kennedy made dear friends among other cancer patients, sharing with them trips behind the scenes at Riverbank Zoo and bonding times at Camp Kemo. By coincidence, Charlie Branham, Kennedy’s father, had volunteered as a DJ at Camp Kemo for years. He always came away feeling fortunate that his children weren’t sick.

When Kennedy’s cancer was diagnosed, Charlie was crushed. But then one day he spoke with Chris Wooten, a family friend of great Christian faith.

“He told me she was going to touch many, many lives,” Charlie said. “I was in the denial stage at the time, so I didn’t believe him. But I’ll be darned if she didn’t.”

Based on the comments on the Pray4Kennedy Facebook page, Kennedy’s situation has prompted thousands upon thousands of heartfelt parent-child hugs, and just as many internal conversations about the need to appreciate every moment.

“There have been thousands of people that have done things for her,” her grandmother, Marguerite Steele, says, turning to look at Kennedy. “But to listen to them and to read the stories on Facebook, I think you, as one person, have done more for others than people have done for you all together. You’ve changed a lot of lives.”

That came through Sunday night, when about 3,000 people filled the new River Bluff High School football stadium for a tribute to Kennedy. She entered the field on a golf cart through an aisle formed by cheerleaders and baseball players from Lexington and River Bluff high schools and the University of South Carolina. Those two high schools are destined to be bitter rivals in sports, but many of the kids will remember the first time they came together in that stadium was to give one of their own a gigantic group hug.

Kennedy’s own life has changed in ways her family never expected.

Before the diagnosis, Kennedy had severe social anxiety problems. She didn’t want a cell phone. She didn’t like to go to the mall – too many people she didn’t know. She would have done anything to avoid walking on a stage to address a crowd.

In the past year, she’s been the willing center of attention at church services, at Fellowship of Christian Athletes programs and at cancer awareness-raising events. She was like a rock star at the end of Sunday’s tribute, posing with her big smile with everyone who came down on the field.

Erin sees her daughter take the stage and wonders, “Who are you and what have you done with our Kennedy?”

Asked what happened to that painfully shy girl, Kennedy dismissively waves her hand and says, “Gone!”

If only it were that easy to banish cancer.

Chemotherapy and steroids kept the disease at bay for 20 months, though they made Kennedy feel bad and gain weight. Each new MRI showed the tumor wasn’t growing. “Stable Mable,” was the happy mantra.

Then Kennedy started feeling worse a few weeks ago. The diagnosis from the latest MRI was the one nobody wanted to hear – the cancer was spreading again.

The Branham family reacted by asking for more of the prayers they believe have helped Kennedy outlive the original projections. They believe that religious faith has been the basis for so many of the positives that have grown out of their journey.

Friends helped schedule the special tribute event to say thanks to the community for the outpouring of support through Kennedy’s battle. They wanted people to walk out of that stadium appreciating life.

The sense of community, the overwhelming aura of love in that stadium drove home what would seem unfathomable – positives can arise from pediatric cancer cases.

Kennedy understands that part of it.

“I hate it,” Kennedy says of what she’s gone through in the past 21 months, “but I’m mostly thankful for it.”

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