Student News

A childhood cancer diagnosis became this UK nursing student's calling

Brooke Hibbitts poses for a portrait

LEXINGTON, Ky. (May 7, 2024) Whenever Brooke Hibbitts first visited the hospital, the nurses would joke: “You will probably want to be a nurse someday!” 

Still just in high school, Brooke had yet to make any specific plans for her professional future. She would brush off the jokes with a “No, I don’t want to be a nurse.” 

The 17-year-old from Hudsonville, Michigan, was becoming a regular at the hospital after a lump on her back turned out to be stage 3 synovial sarcoma — a rare form of cancer that can affect soft tissues like muscles or ligaments. She felt no pain from the lump, and it was barely noticeable beneath a T-shirt so when biopsy results revealed it was cancer, it was real shock. 

“It was so overwhelming,” Brooke said. “I was a perfectly healthy, 17-year-old girl and then to have that thrown at me, it was a lot.” 

To make matters worse, her diagnosis came just a few months before the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. Surgery to remove the tumor and two ribs occurred in March 2020, exactly a week after Michigan went into lockdown.    

Much of Brooke’s eight months of cancer treatment — which included 25 rounds of radiation, eight total rounds of chemotherapy and that long, intensive surgery — occurred in a fairly isolated setting. For a couple of months, she could only see her mom and team of doctors and nurses at Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital in Grand Rapids, Michigan. 

"During my treatment, I met two nurses who had cancer as teenagers, Thomas and Emily,” said Brooke, now a rising senior in the University of Kentucky’s College of Nursing. “It was incredible how they took care of me. They had been in my shoes. They knew some of the feelings I was having before I even recognized them.” 

The influence of those nurses helped Brooke determine her future.  

Emily and Thomas made me realize what I wanted to do in my life, and I would like to pay it forward as a pediatric oncology nurse,” Brooke said. “I want to help kids go through chemo, through their treatments and talk to them coming from the unique perspective of a similar experience. Although no cancer journey is the same, having gone through my own experience, I can connect with them.”    

The impact nurses can make on a patient can be life-changing. Brooke, who never thought of becoming a nurse before her cancer diagnosis, is the perfect example. 

My goal is to be a role model of strength and perseverance,” she said. “I want to be there comforting a child when they are afraid, lonely or scared and need someone to understand how they feel. Having a life-threatening disease during a global pandemic taught me we need to take care of each other because life is fragile. I realize more than ever that you have to do what makes you happy — life as you know it can change in a matter of minutes.” 

This week, May 6-12, is National Nurses Week, a week that honors the contributions America's more than 5 million registered nurses make every day. 

“Although I despise cancer, I thank it for helping me grow as I battled it. I also thank it for leading me to my career decision and the UK nursing program.” 

‘My rock’ 

When it was time to pick a college, Candi was surprised that Brooke — who she considered the most “homebody” of her four kids — wanted to look out of state for a strong nursing program. Brooke’s battle with cancer changed her “so much,” Candi said. 

“I think she realized how special life is and how short it can be,” Candi said.  

Brooke had a grandfather from Kentucky, and her mom was a cheerleader in college, so she was well aware of the university’s decorated cheer team. They came to Lexington for a visit and to learn about UK’s nursing program, six-and-a-half hours from home, and Brooke found her college home.  

“I fell in love with UK,” Brooke said. “I loved the campus. It's not super big, but there are still a lot of people and opportunities. I love all the sports teams. I'm a huge sports girl. My brothers both played Division I basketball.” 

Plus having Kentucky Children’s Hospital right on campus was also a huge boost for a pediatric nurse-to-be. 

At UK, Brooke joined the Delta Zeta sorority, participated in DanceBlue and the UK Saddle Seat Team. She still has three horses back home in Michigan. 

She’d spent much of her life riding horses, and getting back in the saddle was a huge motivator during her cancer treatments, which she finally wrapped up in July 2020 — just in time to participate in a major national horse show.  

Brooke’s horses weren’t the only thing pushing her toward recovery. Her family helped Brooke keep her spirits high throughout the ordeal.  

One of her brothers, one of the aforementioned Division I basketball players, put together a basketball skills shooting video to help Brooke get her mind off her impending surgery. The video got some viral attention and he was interviewed by the local news.   

Brooke also got to be a rock of support for her mom. Candi was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2020 and ended up having surgery the same day that Brooke finished her cancer treatment.  

“I think it made my mom and me a lot closer,” Brooke said. “My mom is my rock. I could not do life without her. I call her every day.” 

Advocating for kids far and wide 

In her three years at UK, Brooke has also been able to be a rock-solid support for kids here in Kentucky and nationwide.  

Her favorite experience thus far in nursing school has been her course focused on pediatric care. She was able to shadow in the DanceBlue Kentucky Children's Hospital Pediatric Hematology/Oncology Clinic

“It was rewarding to help take care of kids and help them through their journey,” Brooke said. 

 Her dream is to become a pediatric hematology oncology nurse who would help care for childhood cancer patients.  

“They're the ones starting the chemotherapy infusions, taking care of those patients, making sure their other levels are good before they can get their chemo,” Brooke said. “And then when those patients are sick, those nurses are right there, helping them fight for their life.” 

In the past two years Brooke has also taken her talents and experience to Washington, D.C. joining the Alliance for Childhood Cancer in advocating for childhood cancer patients before members of Congress. 

Within the offices of congressional members from both Michigan and Nebraska, Brooke has raised awareness about crucial drug shortages and the need for more research for all childhood cancers. 

Candi has been able to join her daughter on those trips both years.  

“The way she presented herself in front of Congress was amazing. She is so passionate about this cause and she wasn’t even nervous,” Candi said. "She did such a great job fighting for other children with this horrible disease. She was so mature and very inspiring.” 

As the state’s flagship, land-grant institution, the University of Kentucky exists to advance the Commonwealth. We do that by preparing the next generation of leaders — placing students at the heart of everything we do — and transforming the lives of Kentuckians through education, research and creative work, service and health care. We pride ourselves on being a catalyst for breakthroughs and a force for healing, a place where ingenuity unfolds. It's all made possible by our people — visionaries, disruptors and pioneers — who make up 200 academic programs, a $476.5 million research and development enterprise and a world-class medical center, all on one campus.   

In 2022, UK was ranked by Forbes as one of the “Best Employers for New Grads” and named a “Diversity Champion” by INSIGHT into Diversity, a testament to our commitment to advance Kentucky and create a community of belonging for everyone. While our mission looks different in many ways than it did in 1865, the vision of service to our Commonwealth and the world remains the same. We are the University for Kentucky.