Young girl running in wheat field with kite under cloudy skies

A family’s loss turns into opportunity to educate about HPV

It should have been a time of joy for Brooke Crawmer-Joseph.

It was 2013 and the Peoria woman had just received news that she was expecting her second child.

With that joyous news, however, Brooke soon found herself dealing with the news that a pap test she had prior to becoming pregnant had come back abnormal.

Brooke consulted an oncologist, but there was no indication that there was a need to be concerned, said Brooke’s mom, Carol Crawmer.

In November 2013, Brooke was put on bed rest at 25 weeks into the pregnancy. Brooke, her husband, Kevin, and their oldest son, Zephin, moved in with Brooke’s parents in north Peoria. In February 2014, the couple’s second son, Nash, was born via C-section.

“When the doctor delivered Nash, he looked around because the pregnancy had been so different than Brooke’s first pregnancy, in addition to her early labor and the abnormal pap smear, and found a growth on Brooke’s cervix,” Carol said.

The diagnosis

Brooke was diagnosed with stage 4 cervical cancer. According to the American Cancer Society, in 2019, about 13,170 new cases of invasive cervical cancer will be diagnosed and approximately 4,250 women will die from cervical cancer.

“The growth was on top of the cervix, not on the bottom. That’s why it wasn’t detected,” Carol said.

A PET scan showed the cancer was everywhere. Brooke began treatment in March 2014.

Celebrating good news

By August, all cancer cells in Brooke’s neck, around her stomach and on her bladder were gone.

“The cancer where the tumor was on her cervix was inactive,” Carol said. “We celebrated that.”

Losing the battle

Brooke Crawmer-Joseph

Brooke was a middle school science teacher and soccer coach in the Dunlap school district. She was the first woman inducted into the Soccer Hall of Fame in Peoria.

In December 2014, Brooke took a break from chemotherapy. She had undergone 18 rounds up to that point.

Brooke also had to quit taking a drug that was helping keep the cancer at bay due to the duration she’d been on the medication and potential complications as a result.

“The cancer just went crazy after that,” Carol said. “She lived 18 months after first being diagnosed. Brooke passed on August 15, 2015.” She was 36 years old.

Leaving behind a legacy

The outpouring of support – prayers, cards, monetary donations – during her cancer battle was overwhelming and appreciated by Brooke’s family.

“Our faith just exploded during this time,” Carol said. “Brooke never wanted attention. She wanted to use some of the money donated to her to start a foundation to help other people with cancer.

“She just really touched people and wasn’t someone who wanted a pity party. I was in awe how she managed to go about her day when she was in so much pain,” Carol said. “Brooke told me, ‘I just want people to see that cancer doesn’t have to stop you.’”

Accepting her fate

“Brooke told me, ‘After my initial shock and acceptance, I began to realize that this is not a punishment, or bad luck. I clung to God for direction and vowed to use this disease for His glory. He has shown me his grace and peace. God has shown me his presence in unimaginable ways. God is the same as he was yesterday, is today, and will be tomorrow,'” Carol said.

After Brooke died, her family and Brooke’s Battalion, a group of friends and their spouses, wanted to honor her memory and follow her wishes and started the Brooke E. Crawmer-Joseph Foundation. They floundered at first to identify a vision for the foundation. They held fundraisers, but still struggled to define the foundation’s purpose.

Then one of Brooke’s doctors suggested doing something around education since it was Brooke’s passion. The doctor also introduced the idea of educating parents about the HPV vaccination. HPV, or human papillomavirus, causes almost all cervical cancers. Getting the vaccination can reduce the risk for infection and HPV-related diseases.

The family reached out to the OSF HealthCare Foundation to begin exploring options for educating people about HPV and the vaccination.

More on HPV

Young girl receiving HPV vaccine at doctor's officeRecent data from the Centers for Disease Prevention and Control (CDC) shows that 51% of teens have not received all the recommended doses of the HPV vaccine. Every year, cancer caused by HPV affects about 19,400 women and 12,100 men. Cervical cancer is caused by HPV.

The CDC recommends two doses of the HPV vaccine for all boys and girls at ages 11-12. The vaccine can be given as early as age 9. The second dose of the vaccine should be given six to 12 months after the first dose.

Older teens and young adults can benefit from the vaccine, too. Women can get the vaccine until age 26, and men through age 21. Some men, such as those with a weakened immune system, can catch up on the vaccine through age 26 if they weren’t vaccinated earlier. Individuals age 15-26 require three doses with the second dose given one to two months after the first and the third dose given six months after the first dose.

Vaccines protect your child before they are exposed to a disease. That’s why the HPV vaccine is recommended earlier rather than later, to protect your child long before they are ever exposed to the virus. Side effects from the vaccine are typically mild and include arm swelling, fever and headache.

If your child hasn’t gotten the vaccine yet, talk to their doctor about getting it as soon as possible. If you don’t have a doctor for your child, find one near you.

Moving forward

The Brooke E. Crawmer-Joseph Foundation will continue to hold benefits to further support the message. A Brooke’s Brainiac Trivia Challenge will be held February 22 in Peoria. The annual Birdies for Brooke Golf Outing is held each September in Peoria.

“If we can use Brooke to help other people, then it’s a beautiful legacy for her and her sons,” Carol said. “Educating parents about the need to vaccinate their children – boys and girls – against HPV-related diseases is like Brooke acting as a mother, helping other mothers do something for their kids.”

About Author: Lisa Coon

Lisa Coon is a Writing Coordinator for OSF HealthCare, where she has worked since August 2016. A Peoria native, she is a graduate of Bradley University with a degree in journalism. Previously, she worked as a reporter and editor at the Peoria Journal Star for 13 years followed by six years at The Register-Mail in Galesburg overseeing all daily assignments and the paper’s niche products.

She lives in Groveland with her husband and son. In her free time she likes to cook and read and spend as much time as possible watching her son play high school baseball and golf. She’s embarrassed to admit reality TV is a weakness, and she lives by the quote, “The beach is good for the soul.”

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Categories: Cancer, Patient Stories, Preventive Health