“I was on top of a mountain,” Brunk said, describing how he felt in June of 1985. He had just completed his fourth year at California Polytechnic University, San Luis Obispo, was preparing for a fifth year to study abroad in Denmark and had become engaged to his “best friend” Cheryl.
Life, as he put it, could not have been any better.
Brunk described actually feeling a bit of guilt and confusion for how perfectly his life seemed to be, stating he actually called a friend, who happened to also be the Cal Poly Chaplain, Father Vince Walsh, with whom he shared his concerns.
“He explained that life isn’t equal,” Brunk said, quoting his conversation with the priest. “It just doesn’t work that way. We don’t all end up in the same place.”
Unbeknownst to the Architecture major as he pondered on the fullness of his life and began planning a future with his soon-to-be wife, Cheryl, his body had begun a battle with cancer.
Following an engagement party with family, Brunk began to feel severe chest pains. Visiting his family doctor shortly thereafter, he expected a diagnosis of indigestion or a minor ailment. At 22 years old, the last thing he expected was cancer.
X-rays showed a large mass in his chest. The initial x-ray was followed by a biopsy that he hoped would reveal it was something as simple as a cyst or benign tumor.
Brunk shared that his doctor had informed him that if it was a benign tumor, they would remove it through surgery and he would awaken from his anesthesia with an incision that would leave a long scar down the center of his chest. If the growth was malignant, there would be no surgery.
After many more tests, x-rays and what he described as ‘poking and prodding,’ in August of 1985 Brunk heard the words “you have cancer.”
At the tender age of 22, he was diagnosed with Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, Stage 3. He described the tumor as the size of a Nerf football wrapped around his heart and lungs, with more spreading in his neck.
His pending plans of travel abroad for study and his marriage to Cheryl were detoured. With the love and support of his family and his bride-to-be at his side, the focus now shifted to Brunk’s treatment plan and saving his life.
In 1985, research was occurring at the American Cancer Society, but it was light years off from the advances we have with today’s scientific knowledge. There was no Google, no Internet to help Brunk and his family research. There were, however, books, articles, and research studies.
Brunk recalled getting a photocopy of an article about his cancer, sent through the mail by a relative with the words “This doesn’t look good” written across the top.
The diagnosis threw the couple a curve ball. Cheryl had completed her degree at Cal Poly in 1985 just before the couple became engaged. Their plan had been to backpack around Europe during the six-week break Brunk would have during his year of studies in Denmark.
Plans for travel abroad switched to travel for treatment. Treatment began with three months of chemotherapy, followed by 10 weeks of radiation treatments at Stanford.
While Denmark fell by the wayside, becoming a plan that never happened, his marriage to his “best friend” did. In March of 1986, just one week following his last dose of radiation, Kevin and Cheryl Brunk were married.
“We still have the matching backpacks we were going to take,” Brunk said of that bypassed trip, adding that he also still has the letter sent to him by the host family he was to stay with while studying there.
As for his bride and best friend, Brunk pointed to all the things that he said not only make her wonderful to him, but also make her his true soul mate.
“There was never a question,” he said of their pending wedding plans post diagnosis. “We were together through thick and thin. That’s who we are. That’s how we were raised.”
Brunk went on to complete his Architecture degree at Cal Poly and secure a career in the field he had dreamed of since seventh grade.
“When I was in seventh grade I decided I wanted to be an architect,” he said. “Every decision I made from that point on was focused on becoming an architect.”
Brunk spent over a decade living his dream as an architect while he also began volunteering with the American Cancer Society. The cancer survivor shared he felt the Society had done so much for him, that volunteering was a small way he could give back and help others as he had been helped.
Before too long, Brunk’s passion for his ‘hobby’ of volunteerism became hard to juggle with his career as architect and his now-family of wife Cheryl and children John and Kristen.
In 1999, Brunk was offered a position as Corporate Development Director for the California Division of the American Cancer Society. He described it as a time when his hobby and career “flip-flopped.”
Eleven years later he is currently the Strategic Director, Corporate Sales for the American Cancer Society.
“My survivorship directly impacted my career change,” he said of the past 11 years. “I do this so our kids’ kids don’t have to do this.”
The couple has also been involved in Relay For Life, the signature ACS fundraising event, since its early inception. In 2002, they left the Modesto event to support Oakdale’s inaugural Relay For Life. Nine years later the family continues to rally their team and show their spirit for the annual fundraiser.
This year Bunk headed up Team 25K in observance of the 25th birthday of Relay For Life, as well as his 25th year since diagnosis. The team’s goal was to raise $25,000 to commemorate the anniversaries. To date they are close to reaching the goal and are still fundraising.
In late May, Brunk was recognized by the Oakdale Relay Committee and presented with the Patient Courage Award.
“It’s humbling,” he said of receiving the perpetual plaque.
“I was surprised, because I know all the people on this plaque. I know every single one of them personally. I know the struggles they went through and in a way I don’t feel worthy.
“My diagnosis and treatment were so long ago. The others (recipients) are much more recent in their battle with cancer.”
Acknowledging that there is more than the physical element of surviving cancer, Brunk said, “While my physical battle (treatments), were long ago, I admit that the mental challenge has at times been tough through the years, even with a clean bill of health.
“Intellectually, I understand that I’ve been given a gift of 25 years, that many others may not have had,” the survivor said.
“Emotionally, I want 25 more,” he added, smiling. “I know that every day is a gift. I get all that stuff. I’ve had a good life … but I have more plans.”
As Brunk spoke of his journey and his life post diagnosis, the names of family and friends who have also battled the disease flow. He admitted to the pain and the wondering ‘why’ he has been able to continue, while others have not.
Though he has that internal struggle of feeling that his battle is not necessarily comparable to others, a Stage 3 diagnosis of any type of cancer — especially in 1985 — was not one to take lightly. Cancer is cancer, regardless of date or diagnosis.
“I feel so fortunate to have gone through this journey in a town like this,” he added of a supportive community.
As Brunk reflected on the names listed on the plaque above his own added this year, he shared that it seemed a bit strange to see his name among friends he views as true warriors.
“I see the word ‘Courage’ and I think of my friend’s sister Colleen who is currently battling brain cancer … that’s courage. Or my friend and classmate Mark Dickens, who lost his battle to cancer one year ago …”
While much has improved in the way of cancer via treatment, research, advocacy and patient services, Brunk’s journey with the organization is far from over.
“I couldn’t have a better ally with the fight against cancer, than the American Cancer Society,” he said. “ACS has changed the course against cancer. That is why I continue to be supportive as a volunteer as well as staff.”
For help or information on the American Cancer Society visit www.cancer.org or call 1-800-ACS-2345.