Against All Odds – Brenda Talley, 60, Las Vegas, Nevada
What happens when life suddenly deals you one bad hand after another? Do you fold, or do you find a way to play it out? Brenda Talley, who was diagnosed with advanced ovarian cancer in 2008 and has undergone more than 40 rounds of chemotherapy, five surgeries and three recurrences, refused to believe each succeeding doctor’s dire prognosis and dug down deep for more “chips” of determination and inspiration.
Although she got away from sports after high school and only started playing tennis at the age of 47, by all accounts Brenda applies a competitive yet compassionate spirit into everything she does. After experiencing the sportsmanship and camaraderie at the 2006 Nevada Senior Games, she was all in, setting her sights on competing in the National Senior Games.
Then, cancer changed the game.
While the medical opinions offered little hope for survival, Brenda set a goal: get back to competitive strength and make it to the National Senior Games. She credits her husband’s and family’s support and the burning desire to participate in The Games as her inspiration to remain positive and motivated to get out of bed and continue to work, exercise and play tennis through the rollercoaster ride of exhausting medical treatments and setbacks. December 2012 was her last chemo and scans showed her to be cancer-free a few months later. Brenda finally attained her goal and competed in the 2015 National Senior Games presented by Humana, which included sharing the court with her husband in mixed doubles play.
There‘s another layer to Brenda’s story. While still surfacing from her nightmare, the fourth generation native of Las Vegas discovered that the 2013 Nevada Senior Games were at risk and desperately needed help. There was talk of canceling that year due to inadequate sponsorships. Despite her low energy level, Brenda stepped up to take the director’s position in 2013 without pay, secured enough sponsors and salvaged the event. People called her a game saver, but in Brenda’s view it was The Games that helped save her.
Brenda Talley continues to be the coordinator for the annual Nevada Senior Games and hopes to attract more support to see them grow even more. Her Personal Best passion to keep them going is not just for herself, but to benefit others, particularly those who need to set a goal to make themselves healthier and enjoy a quality life.
Before we get to the serious stuff, tell us about your background and long family history with Las Vegas.
My great grandmother came here from Silver Reef, Utah in a covered wagon before Las Vegas was even incorporated. I’m told she lost her husband in a mining accident and was grief stricken and wanted to get out with her children. She didn’t know anyone. She also had the first non-native baby here after the city was formed.
So she was a gambler of sorts before there even was big gambling in Las Vegas.
(Laughs) Yes, I guess so. I’m a fourth generation Las Vegan. My grandmother was born here, and so was my mother, me, my children and my grandchildren. I love it here.
You took up tennis later in life. Were you athletic as a youth?
I was a tomboy. My parents had four kids, three girls and a boy. I was the second and closest to my brother, so I went out and played football, basketball and baseball with him and his friends. They always seemed to be one man out, so I had the chance to play.
My dad coached my brother’s baseball team and I used to have short hair and sat on the bench to watch them play. One time, a kid got hurt and I grabbed my mitt and ran right out to center field. When I caught a ball my dad noticed it was me and made me come off the field. I was so upset because I just knew they would let me play if I proved I could do it. “Man, he should have left me in after I caught that ball-I made an out!” That was my one Little League play. (Laughs).
In junior high I was on the girls softball team. I was like four feet two inches and the shortest girl on the basketball team, so my job was just to grab the ball and give it to someone else. I also liked track. But I was a bus student when I got to high school, and there wasn’t an afterschool athlete bus to get me home. So I was unable to participate in sports then.
Too bad. Sounds like you have natural athletic ability and could have continued to college.
Well, music was my other big passion, and still is. I hear music when the wind blows through the trees-it’s in my soul. I was in band from 6th grade through high school. I played clarinet and taught myself to play piano. There’s still one in my home and I play all the time. I also learned guitar, banjo and ukulele, and played organ at my church. I had music scholarship offers but didn’t use them. After high school, I wanted a break from school, managed a flower shop, and then got married and started having kids.
I didn’t play organized tennis until much later. After I first got married, I was in a bowling league until I hurt my shoulder falling in an orchestra pit. So that did away with sports for awhile.
You fell into an orchestra pit?
Well, it’s a long story related to my work. From 15 to 35 I was a florist. It started as an after school job and I became a designer and was pretty good at it. But I couldn’t see a retirement in that line of work, so I went to Clark County Community College to get a teaching degree. I needed to schedule a course that fit in with my daughter’s day care time. I didn’t want to take math, so I signed up for a technical theater course. I had worked with my dad’s tools, making a treehouse and stuff, so
I figured I could handle stage craft. I just fell in love with it, learning lighting design and scenic art and so on. A new theater had been built at the school and they were hiring a lighting director that paid more than being a teacher. I ended up getting that, and while doing the job I had the fall (17 feet!) into the orchestra pit. Because of the severity of my injuries, I couldn’t return to my position backstage. I was moved to the front of the house working for the director of the Performing Arts Center. Shortly thereafter, I was promoted into the director position, where I finished my last ten years before retiring.
|Brenda and Beni at 2015 Games (Photo: Eric Todd)|
OK, so you had a demanding career, family and the injury that put sports on the back burner. When did you start with tennis?
Beni, my husband, is an avid tennis player. So in my late 40s I went to some clinics and then got on a league. I just love playing tennis. Some couples don’t like to play doubles together. I guess they have enough arguments off the court. (Laughs) But we love it. I really love to play singles too.
I was 51 the first time I played Nevada Senior Games in 2006. A friend in my league told me about it so we signed up. Beni and I had a ball and thought it was great fun.
When did things get serious with your health?
It was in 2008. I was presenting at a conference in Austin Texas. I’m a vegetarian, by the way, and on lunch break all I could find to eat was a turkey sandwich. That night I felt nauseous and thought it was the turkey I ate. I was up all night sick. I didn’t fly out until 8 pm the next night, and several times thought I would call the ambulance. When I got off the flight, my daughter said I was pale white. I figured out which hospital would be least busy and went to this little place out in Henderson where I could get in fast. They couldn’t even touch my stomach.
It turned out to be pancreatitis that was causing the pain, but they found a large tumor and told me I needed to see a gynecologist right away. In a way, the pancreatitis was a blessing in disguise.
The doctors said it was probably a cyst. My sister had one removed, so I just thought it was my turn. In the month between then and the surgery it grew from the size of a lemon to a cantaloupe, and it was attached to everything. The doctor told me how they would cut and where it would go if it was cancer. After eight hours of surgery I pulled up my nightgown and said “Oh s_ _ _!” I knew it was cancer before being told.
I didn’t finish chemo until the day before Thanksgiving, so I missed the Nevada games that year. I told myself I would get back in shape. In my tennis clinics I told the coach I didn’t have the stamina to go through all the drills, that when I needed to sit down I would, and when I could get back in I would. I tried to stay as active as I could. I played in the games in 2009- I didn’t play very well, but I got there.
That wasn’t the end of your ordeal. What happened next?
In December of that year we were up in Utah climbing around to get our Christmas tree. I told my husband I was finally feeling like my old self. Then that night, I woke up with this terrible pain and went to the hospital. I was in for three weeks and they still couldn’t figure out what was wrong. On Christmas Eve I told them they better cut me open see what’s going on because I wasn’t eating, on IV’s and was wasting away. They found a blockage in my intestines and another tumor so they had to do a resection.
Before this setback I had been told I had a 90 percent chance of making five years. After this surgery – it was Christmas Day- I asked what my chances were now and the surgeon just shook her head and said “Once you recur it’s not good. I just can’t tell you how long you have.” I was devastated.
Wow, no Merry Christmas that year!
Well, I woke up the next day and decided no more pity party. I knew I needed to see another doctor so I went to the Mayo Clinic. In March there were more tumors and they decided to try a controversial and aggressive IV/IP procedure. In one session they put the chemo in the chest port to the vein, and then they put another type through a port right into the abdomen, lay you back and shake you around. They call it the “shake and bake.” I had that three times in a week, then wait three weeks and do it again. That went on for six months.
The doctor said the procedure could add 18 months and that a handful of patients had gotten seven to ten years. Well, the cancer recurred one month later and she said there was nothing more she could do for me. So I went to a new doctor at Comprehensive Cancer Centers of Nevada, but the news was no better. In the one month in between, the scan showed the cancer had moved into my liver with two large tumors, plus others too numerous to count. We started more chemo in February of 2011. In May, the scans showed the tumors had enlarged and increased in number. That’s when that doctor said I didn’t even have four months.
I kept working all through this to keep my insurance to pay for all of this. I would come home at 6 o’clock and go to bed, and then drag myself up in the morning.
|Brenda rolls for cancer walk in tougher times|
It’s incredible that you are still here to tell this story. How did you get through such a dire situation?
Through all of this I kept telling myself “I have to get up and keep going. I’ve got to get ready for the Games in September. I can’t let my muscles get weak.” To play in the Nevada Senior Games was the prize. That was the driving force to get me up out of bed. My mom also used to say “Don’t stay in bed-you die in bed.” That was in the back of my mind too.
I live in the mountains outside of Las Vegas and the mailbox is three houses down at the end of the street. I would force myself to go down there every day. I had to stop several times coming back up to catch my breath. Other times, I would take out my racquet and just swing my arm to get some muscles moving. I knew I had to keep building up my strength.
After two months of new chemo, there was a tumor reduction in size and number so that was a victory. I got to play in state games that September. I played horribly, and had to withdraw from the mixed doubles, but I did it. By 2012 things were looking a lot better, even though there were still tumors and some lymph node involvement. By May they couldn’t see any more lymph activity. In August they took me off one of the chemo agents, and on December 12th I got off the other agent.
So I qualified in 2012 for doubles play in the 2013 National Senior Games, but I didn’t know how I might be doing the next summer so I didn’t register. And I didn’t want to go until I could do singles- that was always my driving force to play at Nationals. I kept building up, playing doubles with Beni and improving in my singles, and in 2014 I qualified in Nevada for the 2015 Games in Minnesota.
My singles match this year became so special for me. My first surgery was on July 7th of 2008, and the semi-final competition for the playoffs was on July 7th of 2015, exactly seven years to the day from that surgery. 7-7-7…pretty lucky for a Vegas girl! (Laughs) I ended up coming from behind and winning on a tiebreaker to go to the finals of the consolation round the next day. It hadn’t dawned on me until that morning about the date. It felt like my victory over cancer, that I had finally beat it. Winning in that semi-finals match was very emotional.
|Photo: Eric Todd|
It didn’t matter whether you won the next day, did it?
No, not at all! I finished fifth overall in my age division, but that was the biggest victory ever for me. I’m very competitive, but win, lose, or draw, just being able to come and play is what it’s all about.
So now you are the Nevada Senior Games Coordinator. How did that come about?
In 2012, when I was told I had four months to live I retired from my job. If that was going to be it, I was going to spend the time with my family and grandchildren. But by July, my health was looking up, so I decided to help the Nevada Senior Games with registration and office work until they were over in October.
A little later I heard that the games were in trouble. They didn’t have enough sponsors and had less than $600 in their account. They were talking about taking a year off in 2013 since it was not a qualifying year for Nationals. I thought “No, you can’t do that. First, you would lose a lot of people who might not come back. And secondly, there had to be a lot of people like me where those games are the one thing they are focusing on as a goal for the year. You can’t take that away from them!” So I went in and worked for free to help keep it going. We got a big Caesar’s Foundation grant and a couple of sponsors and that allowed us to hire staff again, and I was able to take a stipend. We had a great year in 2014.
We still have had our challenges. Because of a bankruptcy the Caesar’s money was frozen this year and I don’t have that stipend right now. But we have some great sponsors and seeing more and more interest. We’re partnering now with the local YMCA to share information about us with their active seniors. And the turnout is looking good for this year.
It’s simply amazing. You shouldn’t even be here based on the odds you were against, let alone regain your competitive ability and to devote so much energy into saving the Nevada Senior Games.
The Games are really close to my heart, because this was my light at the end of the tunnel. There’s a lot of older people in Senior Games that use this as their motivation to stay active, and may need to get through a challenge of their own.
Then you see all of these people in their 80s running track, jumping in the swimming pool, playing tennis and other sports. It’s a testimony that you use it or you lose it. If you stay active, keep that exercise going and have good nutrition, your later years are going to be much more productive and happy. Not just physically, but emotionally. The socialization is such an important part of The Games as well.
My favorite expression is one that you’ve seen around a lot: You don’t stop playing because you grow old; you grow old because you stop playing. And so I’m not stopping!