Brownstown Central student battled through cancer


Spending most of the summer preparing for football season had become a routine for Justin Brewer.

What the Brownstown Central High School sophomore wound up facing, though, was far from routine.

During team camp in June 2017 at Franklin College, he noticed a problem with his right testicle.

“It just didn’t feel normal,” the 16-year-old said. “It felt bigger and kind of hurt a little bit, and it felt like a rock. It was hard.”

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His mother, Missy Brewer, said she remembers him saying the testicle didn’t hurt all of the time, but it did when he was tackled or made a tackle on the football field.

At a checkup, the doctor thought it was an infection because it was so small and didn’t show up on scans, so Justin was put on an antibiotic.

At the next checkup Aug. 31, however, the lump showed up on the scans.

“It was 10 times bigger than what it was,” Justin said.

The doctor told Justin he had embryonal rhabdomyosarcoma. According to the American Cancer Society, the rare cancer tends to occur in the head and neck area, bladder, vagina or in or around the prostate and testicles, and the cells look like the developing muscle cells of a 6- to 8-week-old embryo.

Justin’s father, Steve Brewer, was with him at that checkup because Missy was home sick.

“We were both just speechless,” Justin said. “I wasn’t really upset that first day because I just couldn’t realize that. I was trying to process everything.”

The next morning, Justin went in for surgery. His doctor was Lawrence Einhorn, who treated cyclist Lance Armstrong’s testicular cancer.

The goal of the nearly three-hour surgery was to save the testicle, but because two tumors were sitting on top of it, the doctor thought it was best to remove it.

“They say it takes your body awhile to realize that they took one out, so you don’t start producing the hormones you need to right at the start, so you have drops in your hormones,” Justin said.

“I would get dizzy and almost pass out because my testosterone levels would drop, and I would get real light-headed, and I would start seeing spots and stuff,” he said. “I would eventually come out of it, but now, those have gone away because the body realizes, and it starts producing more.”

Justin said he initially thought he was having panic attacks, and that caused him to have panic attacks. He endured those for a couple of months after the surgery.

“They were so bad I was afraid to go anywhere by myself or do anything because I would have a panic attack,” he said. “They said it was all in my head, and the reason I was having them is because I was panicking about panicking. It was kind of causing itself.”

The day after his surgery, Justin wanted to go to the junior varsity football game, so his mom put him in a wheelchair and covered him up since it was cool outside.

“I wanted to be around people. I wanted to act as normal as possible,” Justin said. “I didn’t want it to get me down because before all of this, I had seen all of these commercials and stuff talking about people with cancer, and they just look like they are dying, which in some cases they are. I didn’t want to look like that. I wanted to stay strong, and that way, other people would feel good, too.”

Missy said Justin is “100 percent better” when he’s around his football family.

“Any time we got a chance to do football stuff, we did because you live and breathe it all of your life, and it just becomes a part of you,” she said.

On Oct. 16, Justin underwent a nearly five-hour surgery to remove lymph nodes from his abdomen. It was performed by Dr. Clint Cary.

“Using the bathroom for the next two weeks hurt because they had to take all of the intestines out, so when they put them back in, everything was out of whack,” Justin said. “I thought I had acid reflux. I felt like I had to burp all of the time, but I really didn’t have to. They said that’s from where I had a machine breathing for me, and it was just like a habit that had developed, and I had to break that.”

He had a patch placed behind his ear to help with nausea, but he had an allergic reaction to it.

“After that, any time they wanted to give me a new medicine, which I was talking pills for breakfast, lunch and dinner sometimes, I was afraid to take something new,” Justin said.

The surgery didn’t keep him away from one of his hobbies — hunting. The only time he was able to do it was Nov. 18, which was opening day for deer hunting and his 16th birthday. He made the most of it with an eight-point buck.

Since his condition was rare and more aggressive, the doctor couldn’t tell by looking at scans if cancer was in the lymph nodes.

Only one of the 77 he had removed came back cancerous, and it was determined chemotherapy would be necessary. His first treatment was Nov. 27. About a month later, his blond hair began to fall out, and he wound up having his head shaved.

He spent the week of Dec. 18 in the hospital for his second treatment, had a one-day treatment Jan. 8 and had his final weeklong hospital stay in late January.

For the one-day treatment, he received three different kinds of chemo medications. One, known as Red Devil, is hard on the body and is pretty potent, Missy said.

“The one day of chemo would be just as hard on him as when he would go in for a whole week where he got chemo every day,” she said.

The weeklong treatments weren’t easy, either.

“They had me on so much fluid, it seemed like every time I went in there, I already had a cold or something, so it made it even more worse, and my sinuses were so bad that I would throw up,” he said. “I would have so much drainage, I was choking.”

Missy said Justin swelled up because 7 liters of fluid were pumped through him on top of the chemo. That was hard on his bladder, so he was given medication to coat it.

Keeping up with his schoolwork was a challenge through the weeklong treatments because he had to miss school the following week.

Fortunately, his teachers were accommodating, and he maintained his 3.9 grade-point average.

“The teachers helped me so much, and they even told me, ‘You don’t have to get it done.’ Me being who I am, of course, I got it done,” he said.

Justin is glad all of the chemo is done so he can live a more normal life.

“It was just a huge shock through all of it, and I never really broke down about about it or anything,” he said. “I think it’s because everyone — teachers, friends, family, people I never even had talked to before at school — was just so supportive. It just helped me emotionally compensate, and I just trusted in God that I was going to get through it.”

Missy said it was hard to watch her youngest son go through it all.

“Being a mom, you always go, ‘Take this,’ and you come up with some kind of remedy to help your kids. Dr. Mom is what I call myself,” she said. “But when it comes to something like this, I felt helpless because I saw my baby, and I couldn’t do anything. All I could do is hold his hands and pray with him.”

Missy had fellow football moms to lean on when times got tough. During one of their talks, she told them about Steve having to quit a job and start a new one and the difficulties they experienced with switching insurances. Missy also had to miss work.

One of the insurance companies wasn’t going to pay for Justin’s expenses, saying the cancer was preexisting and he knew about it and didn’t get it treated.

The women asked Missy if she and her husband would be OK with doing a fundraiser, and Steve’s friend and former fellow coach, Jade Peters, also had reached out to the family.

They all came together to organize the Fighting Cancer with Brewt Strength benefit, which is set for 6 to 11 p.m. March 9 at Peters’ barn, 2300 E. County Road 400S, Brownstown. The event will include food, a silent auction at 6 p.m., a live auction at 7 p.m., a disc jockey and a band. The cost is $20 per person at the door.

Other people have reached out to do separate fundraisers.

“Whenever somebody donates something to us, I’m just like, ‘I don’t want to see it because when I look at it, it makes me want to cry,'” Justin said. “I’m just like, ‘Wow! People just do that out of the blue.’ It’s crazy how much they care. It’s just the best feeling in the world knowing that people love you and support you no matter what.”

Justin’s next checkup is March 28. For the first two years, he will have checkups every four months. Then it goes to every six months, and then a year.

He has talked to his track and field coach, Derrick Koch, to see how he can contribute this spring, either pole vaulting, running or serving as a manager.

“My lungs aren’t back to full capacity from where I had surgery,” he said. “(Koch) told me to go ahead and sign up and that I can just do what I feel like, and just try and get back into shape, and if I can’t compete, it’s fine.”

He’s hoping to use track and field to get back into shape for football.

“With how hard coach (Reed) May pushes us, every once in a while, you think, ‘Man, I just want to quit,'” Justin said. “Going through this, it just made me realize how important it is to my life because it wasn’t like I quit or that it just got taken away from me. I wasn’t allowed to play, and I’m just ready to get back to it.”

Justin said he encourages other boys and men to do self-checks and go to a doctor if they are suspicious of something.

“I was only Stage I, but it developed,” he said. “Mine was so aggressive that it grew from not being there to being as big as it was in six weeks. If I would have put it off another month, who knows what would have happened?”

Before his diagnosis, Justin planned to continue his education after high school so he could work in the medical field. After everything he has been through, the desire to help others remains.

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“It was just a huge shock through all of it, and I never really broke down about about it or anything. I think it’s because everyone — teachers, friends, family, people I never even had talked to before at school — was just so supportive. It just helped me emotionally compensate, and I just trusted in God that I was going to get through it.”

Brownstown Central High School sophomore Justin Brewer on battling through testicular cancer

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What: Fighting Cancer with Brewt Strength benefit to help the family of Justin Brewer, who battled through testicular cancer

When: 6 to 11 p.m. March 9

Where: Jade Peters’ barn, 2300 E. County Road 400S, Brownstown

Cost: $20 at the door

Features: Food, a silent auction at 6 p.m., a live auction at 7 p.m., a disc jockey and a band

How to help: Anyone interested in donating an item for one of the auctions should contact Barbie Huber at 812-216-7344 and arrangements will be made to pick it up prior to the event; monetary donations may be mailed to Tami Hall, 4665 W. Base Road, Medora, IN 47260; make checks payable to Missy Brewer

Information: Check out the “Justin Brewer Fighting Cancer with Brewt Strength Benefit” Facebook event page


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