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Beating the odds

Beating the odds

Brooke Schleben ’20 July 14, 2020
To avoid cancer, Brooke Schleben ’20 underwent surgery while continuing her education.

Four years ago, I had the BRCA gene test to see how likely I was to get breast cancer. Ends up I had an 87% chance.

It wasn’t a surprise. Both of my grandmothers passed away from breast cancer — and my mother had it as well. Thankfully, she recovered and has been cancer free for almost 18 years.

Illustration of Brooke SchlebenI waffled with what to do about the diagnosis. It was a big decision to have my breasts removed — a bilateral mastectomy — to avoid a battle with cancer down the line.

In the summer of 2018, my path forward became clear. My aunt, my mother’s sister, was diagnosed with terminal breast cancer. Over the course of the summer, I watched her go from a person to a skeleton. My life was busy, pursuing a joint JD and MBA at UD, but seeing my aunt struggle pushed me to make a decision. I wanted to avoid the same fate, no matter how difficult the journey, so I embarked on the bilateral mastectomy that summer.

This process, including reconstruction, normally involves two to three surgeries. Your breasts are removed, a tissue expander is put in to prepare for the implants, and then the expander is taken out and the implants are inserted. That was the plan for me — but it went awry.

On the second day of my second year of law school, I woke up with a quarter-sized hole in my chest. The tissue expander had broken through my skin. I had to have emergency surgery, and three surgeries turned into five because of the complications. And, beyond all of my struggles, my beloved aunt passed away during this time.

Despite my health struggles, I decided against taking medical leave. I didn’t want to be stuck at home, depressed about my situation. It was the right choice for me; being immersed on campus helped me power through a lot of bad days.

So many faculty and staff members came to my aid, ensuring that I was able to handle my workload — and everything else in my life. My fellow law students were also there for me, from carrying my book bag to just lifting my spirits, getting me to laugh or smile. They provided a sense of normalcy and cameraderie that I really needed. And others in the UD community — people I had never met — made my road to recovery easier, as well. Three donor-funded scholarships kept financial worry from hanging over me. I can’t thank these donors enough for easing my burden.

By God’s good graces, I’m fully recovered and extremely happy I took the route I did. I graduated with my JD in May and only have four classes left to achieve my MBA. It’s been a bumpy road, but I’ve come out on top, and it’s because so many people have been in my corner: my family, my close friends and a campus community that really cares — my Flyer family.

Shaping the future