Wyoming Cowgirl overcomes cancer, infection to win regional rodeo title
LARAMIE -- Brandy Schaack remembers waking up in the hospital from a second procedure to clean out an infection -- a highly contagious infection among horses and rare for humans to contract from animals -- in her right leg. Staring at her as she lay in the hospital bed were her parents, doctors and nurses. She could tell her parents were upset.
“I kind of knew it probably was not good,” says the recently graduated University of Wyoming rodeo team member from Hyannis, Neb.
While she was there originally to have her infection cleaned, she also had a second PET (positron emission tomography) scan -- an imaging test that allows a doctor to check for diseases in the body. Doctors wanted to make sure an unrelated, earlier-detected lump on her stomach had not increased in size. The PET scan revealed that cancer had spread aggressively throughout most of Schaack’s body.
“When they told me, I really did not get upset. I actually just asked if I was going to lose my hair,” she says. “Once I had that second PET scan, though, and it showed that cancer was everywhere, then I got kind of scared of what all was happening.”
That was more than two years ago. Since then, the elementary education graduate has overcome her medical ordeal to become a key UW women’s rodeo team member, one who has qualified for collegiate rodeo’s biggest event -- the College National Finals Rodeo (CNFR) June 13-19 in Casper. This will be Schaack’s second CNFR bid; she qualified as a freshman competing for Northeastern Junior College in Sterling, Colo.
In her first full season since coming back from her lengthy medical troubles, Schaack worked her way into becoming a valuable member of the UW Cowgirls team that captured its third straight Central Rocky Mountain Region (CRMR) team title.
She has had a stellar final season at UW, winning the breakaway roping title. In doing so, she accumulated enough individual points throughout the fall and spring seasons to finish second overall in the nation, just 87 points back of Walla Walla Community College’s Annie Minor.
“This is my first regional title. I was so excited, because now I have one just like my mom,” Schaack says.
Schaack, a 2015 Hyannis High School graduate, and the daughter of KC and Chad Schaack, has been riding horses and rodeoing since she can remember. KC Schaack won breakaway roping titles in the CRMR and in the Great Plains regions during the 1987-89 seasons, respectively.
“My parents and grandparents both rode horses and rodeoed, so it ran in the family,” she says.
UW Coach Beau Clark says Schaack had an incredible year in winning the CRMR title despite other obstacles. She participated in nine of 10 rodeos this past season and competed on a borrowed horse the last two rodeos because her own horse, Juju, was injured.
“We have watched Brandy overcome challenge after challenge with grit and grace. It could be her health or, sometimes, it was a horse that came up lame, but Brandy always moved forward with an optimistic attitude and a desire to follow the plan that she set out to accomplish,” Clark says. “She didn’t let anything keep her from achieving her goals and meeting the expectations she has for herself in school, rodeo and in life.”
But her rodeo career almost came crashing to a halt with life-threatening medical conditions nearly two years ago.
Schaack was diagnosed with Stage 4 non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma during March 2019. She actually underwent three procedures that day because she had other serious medical issues as well. She basically had lost all of her immune system and, then, she ended up catching “strangles,” a disease found in horses. Being around the animals for her livelihood, she contracted the disease -- a bacterial infection similar to strep throat in humans -- that causes swollen lymph nodes in the horses’ throats.
That fateful day, doctors had to cut open both sides of her leg because strangles had caused an infection, leading to compartment syndrome. In rare cases, humans have contracted infections from the bacteria that cause strangles; people who do contract it usually are immunocompromised.
“My leg had to be split down each side to let out the swelling, and doctors had to use a wound vacuum on my leg to draw out the infection,” Schaack says.
The other two procedures were for stomach issues. Doctors earlier had discovered a small lump on her side -- which turned out not to be cancerous. But, while conducting that procedure for the lump, medical personnel found a small spot of cancer elsewhere. The doctors planned to have Schaack undergo chemotherapy treatments for cancer in Scottsbluff, Neb., two hours away from her hometown. Two weeks later, she had to go back to the doctor to remove the leg staples -- 50 on each side. She also had a PET scan to check on the cancer’s progress.
“The PET scan was horrifying to see, really. The cancer had spread rapidly to my bones, liver and all over my body,” Schaack says. “The whole screen was lighting up like a Christmas tree. I was then told we needed to get somewhere else as soon as possible -- to a much larger, specialized facility.”
A week later, Schaack ended up at UCHealth at the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus in Aurora, Colo., to begin six rounds of treatments. Once she arrived in Denver, her leg started to hurt again. The infection came roaring back, but only in the incision that was on the inside of her leg.
“I had to have surgery again on my leg. It had to be split open to let it expand. A wound vac was used again to draw out the infection,” she says. “Once I was stitched back up, they moved me to the 11th floor to start chemo.”
She then began six rounds of treatments. For round one, Schaack was in the hospital for two weeks because she also had the second leg surgery. Rounds two through six were all repeated the same: Schaack would endure five days in the hospital where chemo was infused throughout her body, and then spend two weeks at home after each of those rounds.
“I have to be honest: Chemo kicked my butt, and I did lose all my hair. I was really weak. Also, it was pretty challenging to try to crutch around with my leg,” Schaack says. “The doctors had told me that I probably would not be able to walk for six months because chemo would be killing everything. Chemo destroys everything, not just the cancer. But, I was off my crutches before I was even done with chemo.”
The ordeal kept Schaack from competing for one full summer and cost her one year of actually being on the UW campus for classes. That was more than a year ago.
“I never did quit school. I was still doing schoolwork while going through chemo and finished some of my classes through the summer,” she says. “I took all online classes that fall after I finished treatments and did not rodeo. In the spring, I actually came back to Laramie and, again, I did not rodeo.”
When she did get back on her horse, Schaack put together an incredible senior year, Clark says -- one that also saw her graduate in May and land her first teaching position in Chadron, Neb., as a third grade educator.
“I have an admiration for strong competitors, and Brandy is on another level that is very impressive. The perspective she has for what she is doing, her attitude, her ability to control what she can and her preparation for competition will be examples or a blueprint that we will want to share, encourage and coach for the future athletes at UW,” Clark says. “She has worked hard to put herself in a position to be as competitive as anyone in the country. I am really looking forward to seeing how the CNFR plays out for Brandy.”
By nature, Schaack says, she is a determined person who will grind until something is completed. That is how she became a regional breakaway roping champion after overcoming so much in her young life.
“Just like chemo treatments, I just keep pushing through until it is all over. I always told myself to get through this day or this hour or this minute. I was always pushing,” she says. “But, believe me, there were times it was hard to just get through a minute. Never once did I think that I would never compete again. God has a plan for my life, and I am just living out that plan.”
* University of Wyoming press release/ Milton Ontiveroz feature