Breast cancer survivor fundraises to advance cancer research
Twenty-three years ago, Brenda Petru made a promise to her best friend, Sue, that she would continue fundraising for cancer research — no matter what.
Brenda walked alongside her friend for 19 years as Sue faced breast cancer, recurrence and metastasis. As they neared the end of their journey together, Sue’s simple request inspired Brenda to become involved with numerous cancer organizations.
What started as a promise soon became even more personal to Brenda. In 2004, she was diagnosed with stage III infiltrating ductal adenocarcinoma, an aggressive form of breast cancer. As she remembered the excellent care Sue received at MD Anderson, Brenda knew exactly where she wanted to seek treatment.
Personalized breast cancer care, closer to home
MD Anderson The Woodlands opened in March 2004, just a few months before Brenda’s diagnosis. As one of the first patients at this location, Brenda felt fortunate to be able to receive radiation therapy closer to home.
“I was scared to death,” Brenda recalls. “But everyone who works at MD Anderson is so human. They’re there because that’s where they want to be — to help cancer patients.”
Brenda recalls being dehydrated and nervous during an initial scan at MD Anderson, which made her veins difficult to access. She began to panic as the contrast for the scan was administered. The tech who was performing the scan could tell Brenda was anxious, so he went out of his way to reassure her during the procedure.
“I remember he told me, ‘Once I get you started, I’m going to come back in here, and I’m going to stay by your side. I know you’re frightened. Just know that I’m here with you,’” Brenda says. “I’ve never forgotten that. That was just the beginning of all the kindness that was shown to me and my husband during this eight-month journey.”
Throughout her treatment, Brenda felt reassured and comforted by her MD Anderson care team, including her radiation oncologist, Pamela Schlembach, M.D.
“Dr. Schlembach spent so much time with us. I told her I was very anxious to go into radiation. I had mentioned my faith, so she offered spiritual support and encouragement each time I went in for radiation during those six weeks,” Brenda says.
Brenda’s cancer was cured, and she is now an 18-year cancer survivor.
“If I were to get cancer again, I would be at MD Anderson in a heartbeat. I know that they're going to be there for me if I need them again. They're going to fight their hardest for me,” says Brenda. “It gives me hope knowing they’re there. Even if I lived out of state, that's where I would want to be.”
Giving back through MD Anderson’s Boot Walk to End Cancer®
For decades, Brenda participated in fundraising walks for breast cancer organizations as part of her promise to Sue. Over the years, she saw many friends and family face cancer, too. When MD Anderson’sBoot Walk to End Cancer began in 2016, Brenda was drawn to the idea of raising money for research that would benefit people affected by all kinds of cancers.
“I love that it doesn't focus on just one cancer. It means so much more to me because I’ve lost so many friends and family to different cancers,” Brenda says.
Since 2016, she has raised more than $135,000 through the Boot Walk to support cancer research at MD Anderson.
The first year, Brenda designated her fundraising to support research into rare breast cancers. Since then, she’s focused on supporting those affected by lung, brain, pancreatic and appendix cancers, among others. Each year, she writes a pledge letter asking her friends and family to support her during the Boot Walk in honor of specific friends or family members who have faced cancer.
Her list of loved ones affected by cancer is long. But Brenda maintains hope for a cure, and she continues to keep her promise to Sue.
“We have cancer all around us. I just can’t give up. It’s so heartwarming to do this because maybe you're going to be a part of finding the cure,” says Brenda.
Last year Brenda raised close to $34,000. "This year, I want to double that!” she says. “There’s more that needs to be done before we can end this terrible disease, and it’s up to us to raise money for research. The researchers at MD Anderson are doing their part, but they need funds. So, that’s my passion — doing my part by sharing my story and raising funds for this lifesaving research.”
Coming full circle
The Boot Walk brings together thousands of supporters from across the community, but sometimes it also reunites physicians with their patients. Such was the case for Brenda and Schlembach.
Over the years, the two had lost touch, but then they ran into each other at the Boot Walk Top Fundraiser Celebration honoring top fundraisers from 2021. When someone called Dr. Schlembach’s name, Brenda’s face immediately lit up and she went over to reintroduce herself.
“She and I just clicked. I could never forget her sweet name,” Brenda says. The two hugged and cried happy tears with one another.
“When you take care of a patient, you always hope the next time you see them that they will be healthy and happy. So, it’s very moving to have that connection with somebody after so many years and see them strong and well — and to know that they are at an event for the same reason you are, which is to help end cancer,” says Schlembach.