As the sun rose on the morning of July 3, Cheryl and Matt Broyles were climbing Half Dome in Yosemite National Park with their two sons: Grant, 14, and 12-year-old Clint. Gripping the cables that assist climbers on their ascent, the family enjoyed a majestic view over the natural treasure as they hiked toward the heavens.
“The scenery there, the grandeur of the canyons and valleys, the snow-covered peaks, the sunrise on a perfect day was just another confirmation of God’s power, and he created that for us to enjoy,” Matt said.
The Broyles family embarked on a challenging journey to the mountaintop 11 years ago. At age 33, Cheryl was diagnosed with glioblastoma multiforme (GBM) – brain cancer – in June 2000. People with GBM live an average of 14 months after diagnosis, according to a 2010 study by Emory University. At the prime of her life, Cheryl was told she had a year to live.
She and Matt met as students at Humboldt State University in Northern California, married the day after Cheryl’s graduation in 1990, and started careers in wildlife biology. Cheryl and Matt moved to Oregon and began working with the Bureau of Land Management to save spotted owls.
Yet after 10 years of marriage, Cheryl and Matt’s relationship began to change. Treatment for brain cancer – brain surgery and radiation – forced Cheryl to quit her job as a wildlife biologist and strained the family’s finances. The procedures targeted a tumor on Cheryl’s left temporal lobe, the region of the brain that controls memory and language. In addition to forcing an unpredicted retirement and possibly restricting Cheryl’s cognitive function, the cancer posed a serious emotional challenge.
“She’s been sick for half of our marriage,” Matt said. “I’m a fixer, I’m a doer. This was something that I couldn’t fix, and it was a real struggle for me and still is. It was way bigger than me.”
As Matt continued working in wildlife to support his family, Cheryl and her doctors battled the persistent cancer in her brain. Cheryl underwent surgery and radiation after her initial diagnosis in 2000. Her GBM returned four years later, then again in 2007 and 2009, requiring surgeries each time. A decade after being diagnosed with GBM, Cheryl had endured four surgeries on her brain.
Each operation tested Cheryl’s mental capacity, but Cheryl worked to maintain her brain function. Faced with procedures that could hinder the ability of her brain to process language, Cheryl responded with a feat of literature: she wrote a book.
Life’s Mountains tells the story of Cheryl’s journey to the top of Mount Shasta on the fourth anniversary of her diagnosis in June 2004. The hike fulfilled one of Cheryl’s dreams, a vision that came to her during MRIs and radiation treatments on tumors in her brain.
“I would visualize myself raising my arms up to God standing on the peak of a mountain,” she said. “I decided I wanted to climb to the top of Mount Shasta and stand on the top of the mountain and thank God.”
The peak of Mount Shasta also represented a milestone in Cheryl’s religious journey, and Cheryl said she hoped to share her faith by writing a book. Two months after climbing Shasta, Cheryl received even more encouragement to write about her experiences.
“In August 2004 I had my second brain surgery, and after that I was really motivated to write the book,” Cheryl said.
Striving to complete the book before losing her cognition, Cheryl went to work sharing her experiences of the first four years of her life with brain cancer. She met with other writers, who advised her to be open and share the details of her experiences.
“Writing the book was therapeutic to me because I was able to share hard emotional things that I normally wouldn’t be able to talk to anybody about,” Cheryl said. “I tried really hard to tell them the fear I had, and my greatest fear was my kids not being able to remember how much I loved them. Talking about that in my book was probably the hardest.”
Cheryl completed Life’s Mountains in 2007, just before a GBM recurrence brought more surgery on her brain. Following the operation, Cheryl and Matt launched a website to continue sharing her ongoing story with others. Cheryl’s brain cancer is rare and dangerous, and her story speaks to an online community interested in GBM.
“I’m blessed in a way that I’m able to encourage other people not only through the book I wrote but also through my webpage and the video I made,” she said.
Cheryl said she receives between two and five emails each day and has phone conversations from people seeking encouragement. She keeps a list of the foreign countries from where people have contacted her regarding the website: Czech Republic, New Zealand, India, Turkey, South Africa, Norway, Israel, Morocco, and Scotland.
Visitors to Cheryl’s website followed her through treatment during a fourth round of brain surgery in 2009, and Matt and Cheryl continue to update the site. They have also been open with their sons, Grant and Clint, about Cheryl’s condition. Toddlers when their mother was diagnosed, the boys have grown up watching their mother endure brain surgeries and live with a deadly disease.
“They’re very aware Mom could pass away, and we’re very open and share the news of diagnoses,” Matt said. “They’re involved, engaged, and very knowledgeable about the whole situation.”
Grant and Clint have gone with their mother on the 7-hour drive to San Francisco to witness her MRIs and have met with her neurosurgeons. Cheryl said she and her husband view her illness as a challenge, and they want their sons to know challenges will not prevent them from having fun. The Broyles go boating, camping, and hiking around Northern California.
“We don’t waste much time sitting around; we are the busiest family we know,” Matt said. “If it’s with the family, I can do a good job keeping my mind off the fears and doubts. I know it’s brought Cheryl and me closer as a couple.”
The entire Broyles family participated when they attended the Inheritance of Hope Legacy Retreat in January 2010 at Disney World. They shared their experiences with other families living with terminal illnesses, and Cheryl got the special opportunity to give her sons pictures and videos of her legacy.
“My fear was if I did pass away according to what the doctors said, my boys would look at pictures and say, ‘Where’s mom?’” Cheryl said.
Inheritance of Hope volunteers handled all of the photography during the retreat weekend, making sure to include Cheryl in pictures. During the retreat, Cheryl also made a video for her sons to preserve her memory after her death.
“That was the most valuable thing that I left because it’s something I never would have done,” Cheryl said. “The boys will have a video, and they’ll be able to hear what my voice was like, they’ll be able to see me, and they’ll be able to hear what I really wanted to tell them.”
The month of June is a significant one for Cheryl. It is the anniversary of her initial diagnosis in 2000, and she says each June she tries to do something special to celebrate another year of survival. In 2004 she commemorated her anniversary by hiking Mount Shasta. This latest June, she scaled Half Dome, accompanied by her husband and two sons.
Grant and Clint have followed their mother on her journey with brain cancer.
“When I was first diagnosed they were only one and three years old,” Cheryl said. “Now my oldest son Grant is taller than me, and my younger son Clint is about my height.”
They have grown to be young men, football players. When the Broyles hiked Half Dome two months ago, Grant beat his mother to the top of the mountain.
“I feel so blessed that I am still alive when they are capable of climbing to the top of Half Dome,” Cheryl said. “I treasure each second I have with my family. Being at the top of Half Dome was something I never thought we’d do as a family.”
Cheryl recently wrote a three-part devotional entitled “Life’s Mountains” for Inheritance of Hope’s blog. Click to read them!