14-year-old Bria Roberts rolls with the punches better than most. She’s got a wide grin, sparkling brown eyes and a positive outlook – despite the brain tumour that changed her life.
In October 2018, Bria was having mild headaches and difficulty seeing the board at school. Thinking it was time for glasses, her mother April made an appointment for an eye test. That test revealed some optic nerve swelling, so Bria was sent for an MRI right away in her hometown of Kingston. They were sent to CHEO the next day to see a neurosurgeon.
On November 2, following a three-and-a-half-hour MRI and a long wait in the Emergency Department, Bria was admitted to CHEO for further testing and stayed 12 nights. April says cancer was never even considered a possibility before they found themselves in 4 North, CHEO’s oncology unit. Things became real very quickly. “We weren’t prepared,” April recalls. “For any of it. Kerry her dad was away, and most of our family is in Newfoundland. We had to mobilize quickly!” April’s brother who lives nearby spent every day at CHEO with them until Kerry arrived back home. April’s sister arrived from Newfoundland to care for Bria’s brother, Maison, so his life was not completely disrupted.
All this transpired while Bria’s dad was deployed in Iraq with the Canadian military. April was holding down the fort and sharing these frightening updates on their daughter’s health via satellite and phone to her husband who was half a world away.
Surgery to remove Bria’s tumour and determine if it was cancerous was scheduled for November 7, 2018. Kerry’s unit had him returned home so he could be there for his family. He came straight to CHEO from the airfield, arriving at 10 p.m. the night before Bria’s operation.
With both her parents there to support her, Bria underwent what was supposed to be a 12-hour brain surgery. That changed when it was determined the tumour was inoperable because it was too close to her brain stem. A biopsy was taken. Bria had cancer. Her CHEO oncology team came up with a new plan: chemotherapy.
Bria was given an intense 70-week chemo schedule. Every Thursday she and one or both of her parents would travel to CHEO from Kingston, staying at Ronald McDonald House so Bria could have her treatment first thing Friday morning. The drive home could be rough, as the chemo side effects took over. “Bria never complained – not once. April 2020 seemed so far away when we first found ourselves here,” her mother says, exhaling. “But she did it!”
Part of her strength came from the Team Bria Facebook page April created to keep friends and family in Newfoundland and the military in the loop. Team Bria t-shirts were made and to date more than 2,000 people have posted photos from around the world to show Bria their support.
And hockey, specifically the Ottawa Senators, figured prominently in Bria’s recovery and ability to cope. She had opportunities to see her beloved Ottawa Senators while spending time in Bobby Ryan’s All Star Suite when he was with the team. The former Sens player gave her so much courage and strength and remains a strong supporter of Bria’s even to this day. Her story also inspired former Sens defenceman Mark Borowiecki who presented her with a signed stick at a game. In April 2020, when Bria finished chemotherapy, she was unable to have the traditional ‘bell ringing’ ceremony to mark the end of her treatment because of COVID-19 restrictions. Instead, she stood outside Canadian Tire Centre and rang a bell hanging from Borowiecki’s stick while wearing Bobby Ryan’s Hockey Fights Cancer jersey!
Now, Bria comes to CHEO every 12 weeks for an MRI to ensure her tumour hasn’t grown or spread. After a year, those MRI’s will happen every six months and she’ll continue to be monitored for the rest of her life.
Despite the challenges, Bria looks at her cancer diagnosis as an opportunity. She says she wouldn’t have met all the amazing people she now calls friends. And she seizes every chance to share her story, honoring each request in the hope that it can help others.