Editor’s note: The Courier has been following Ashley Bissel in her fight against a rare form of brain cancer. This is the final installment in the series.
Ashley Bissel wears a simple charm bracelet, a chain of loose silver links adorned with a single a accoutrement, a small ribbon of the same metal.
She grasps the tiny charm between her thumb and forefinger, absorbing its smooth texture and savoring the significance.
Every May 15, she plans to add another.
The ribbon represents one year since her diagnosis with astroblastoma, a rare and aggressive tumor that invaded her brain.
The diagnosis came only a day before she was to begin nursing-school classes at the University of Northern Colorado, a dream that she was forced to push back a semester, and then another.
And her wedding to high school sweetheart Aaron Berens, a fellow classmate from Dakota Ridge’s class of 2005, was postponed indefinitely.
But on May 15, Ashley celebrated the anniversary, cancer free, with a small group of friends and family at the Berenses’ South Jeffco home.
“It’s amazing how far I’ve come. Aaron’s mom wrote a poem for me that kind of went through the whole year, and it was amazing to look back on everything that I went through,” Ashley said. “It’s only been a year, and I’ve gotten back everything I’ve been fighting for. It’s exciting to be here.”
Two years ago, she began to have headaches. Several doctors came to similar conclusions — that the college student was under too much stress and had developed migraines. But then she began to lose her vision, and an MRI revealed a 6-centimeter mass, growing out of control.
After a surgical excision of the tumor, intensive radiation treatment and two long rounds of chemotherapy, a scar and a patch of short hair on the back of her head provide the only physical reminders of her struggle.
On May 16, with her life no longer on hold, Ashley picked up where she left off, beginning her first nursing classes at UNC.
Though the year of debilitating treatments pushed back a few of her dreams, the experience provided a bit of perspective.
Once an anxious newcomer at her brain-cancer support group, she’s now a mentor to frightened patients about to begin a journey now familiar to her.
“It was hard. It hit me just as bad as it did the first time,” she said of her second round of chemotherapy, which she completed less than a month ago. “The schedule was better. It was only one week (on), and then I had three weeks off. But there were new symptoms every week.
“It felt like I would do things, and I would just get wiped out. I would do the laundry, and I’d be tired all day. At least now I feel like I can start doing a lot more things. I can go out in public. … They just keep doing my MRIs every two months. As long as they’re coming up clean, I won’t have to go back on anything.”
For Ashley’s mother, Devon, the experience was a mixture of fear and hope, one that brought her family closer, even though they live more than 100 miles apart.
“I felt like I needed to be there, but I needed to work. I would go up every Wednesday night and be with her, and (then) go to work the next day,” said Devon, who relocated to Castle Rock when Ashley moved back to Greeley. “(I feel) blessed. It’s a miracle. It strengthens your faith.”
The move was difficult too for Ashley, who left the vast support of the South Jeffco community to be taken care of by Aaron. After Ashley’s story first appeared in the Columbine Courier last year, numerous donors chipped in to help cover the cost of her treatments.
“That was an adjustment,” Ashley said, noting Aaron’s attempts to keep her from lifting a finger around their apartment, a difficult concept for a young woman mildly obsessed with cleaning. “He took control of everything. He cooked and cleaned and made sure I rested. … He tried to make sure I didn’t overdo it.”
With an uncommon firsthand knowledge, Ashley plans to put her experience into pediatric oncology, where she’ll work as a nurse.
“I wasn’t really that young when I was diagnosed, but I want to work with younger kids that have to go through that,” she said. “I feel like I’d be able to completely sympathize with what they’re going through.”
When not buried in textbooks or working her clinical rounds, Ashley gets to work on something she’s been anticipating for a year: focusing less on getting better and more on picking out flowers and compiling the guest list for her wedding. Ashley and Aaron are engaged to be married in December at the Chateau at Fox Meadows, a French-style country estate in Broomfield.
“It was hard having to push that day back. … I think that was one of the hardest days I’ve had,” said Ashley, who plans to invite friends she met in her support group to the long-awaited ceremony. “They’re like my family. … We’re like the panel of (cancer) experts.”
And, as an expert, Ashley has some advice for just about anyone.
“Just believe in yourself and keep your positive attitude that you can do it. You just have to know that you have the strength to do whatever you want. I think it makes a huge difference. The whole year I was saying, ‘I’m fighting to get my life back. I’m fighting so I get to go back to school and I get to have a future,’ ” she said. “Now that it’s here, I can’t believe it’s here. It feels like it’s been the longest year of my life.”