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Passion behind the practice ‘I knew it was the perfect path for me’
The Hunter sisters

‘I knew it was the perfect path for me’

Liz-Hunter Brack’s passion to help others drove her to a career as an oncology nurse, and her family history of breast cancer prompted her and her sister to make life-changing decisions to reduce their risk.

Liz-Hunter Brack’s story might best be summed up in the lyrics of one of her favorite songs, country band Rascal Flatts’ Bless the Broken Road.

This much I know is true

That God blessed the broken road

That led me straight to you

For much of her young life, Brack traveled that broken road, one with blind corners, bumps and curves—and divergent paths that required difficult decisions. For much of her journey, Brack has seen the pain and suffering cancer can bring to those closest to her. But her positive outlook has helped her see her family’s cancer experiences as a gift that’s helped her become a strong, resilient woman who made a life-changing decision to reduce her cancer risk and become a registered nurse with a passion to help others.

“Cancer has made me who I am and brought me all these unbelievable relationships and my career,” Brack says. “But it has also taken a lot of wonderful people. But even through their suffering, I feel like I’m able to help so many other people in their lives.”

The Hunter sisters

‘Just a natural caregiver’

From her earliest childhood, Brack remembers wanting to take care of living things, a desire that began with the animals on her grandma’s dairy farm. Brack spent many hours riding horses on those rural Georgia acres and showing cows at Future Farmers of America and 4H events. She also helped to nurse wounded chipmunks, snakes, dogs and cats back to health.

“I was always just a natural caregiver,” she says. “I always took care of people and animals. Even through nursing school, I’d pick up stray dogs.”

The adults in her life modeled that caring attitude. Her family took care of her incapacitated great-grandmother in her home for 12 years before her passing. And when her grandmother was diagnosed with breast cancer, the family rallied to tend to her needs.

“I just grew up watching people take care of other people,” Brack says. “It was a good influence.”

Beyond her love of animals, Brack grew up riding dirt bikes with her dad’s family and was a competitive cheerleader from second grade through high school.

When Brack was in seventh grade, her mother was diagnosed with breast cancer, like too many other women in her family had been. Her mother began rounds of chemotherapy and radiation therapy to treat the disease. As a typical middle schooler, focused on the all-star cheerleading season, Brack says her mom’s diagnosis at first just felt “weird.”

“I felt like I didn’t want to touch her. I thought I was going to break her,” she recalls. “But my mom, she has such a good outlook. She is such a positive person, so she never really let us know that things were bad. I mean, we knew they were. She had stage 3 cancer. It’s a miracle she’s alive. But she just always pushed through, and she was tough.”

Brack’s caregiving instinct also kicked in. She didn’t avoid the reality of what her mom was going through and wanted to be there as her mom underwent her treatments. Brack has a vivid recollection of being with her mom in a big, open room with a long line of chairs filled with patients getting their chemotherapy infusions. When her mom’s hair started to fall out, Brack and her older sister, Copelan, sat her down in the front yard of their grandmother’s house and shaved her head.

“She always just made it a pretty positive experience. It was never ‘poor me,’” Brack says. “She gave us that security of not feeling like we had to worry.”

Her mom even made it to all but one of Brack’s cheer competitions.

“The only thing is, I refused to see her without her hair on,” Brack said. “I don’t know why, but it bothered me. She thought it was funny. She’d pull her wig off, and I’d say ‘Put your hair on!’ As long as she had her hair and her wig, she looked like Mom.”

Recently, Brack accompanied her mom, who still has no evidence of disease, to her 15-year checkup.

Liz Hunter Brack

‘Why did God spare me?’

With such a strong family history of breast cancer, sisters Liz and Copelan, who is three years older, began thinking about their own future.  When Liz was a high school senior, Copelan decided to be tested for the BRCA genetic mutation, which significantly increases the risk of breast and ovarian cancer. According to the American Cancer Society, someone with the BRCA2 mutation has up to a 7 in 10 chance of developing breast cancer, and the odds are even higher if many other family members have had breast cancer.

Copelan tested positive for the gene and chose to undergo a total mastectomy and reconstruction surgery.

Of course, Liz was there helping her sister in her recovery, washing her back and her hair when she couldn’t use her arms and emptying the surgical drains. Just as they had for their mom.

At age 20, Liz decided to get tested for BRCA2 as well. When her results came back positive, she followed in Copelan’s footsteps with a total mastectomy and reconstruction.

Thinking about her grandmother, her mom and her sister, Brack says she wasn’t afraid or hesitant about the surgery. Her attitude was more “let’s get it done.”

“A lot of times, I think people feel sorry for me, but I’m like, no! Do not feel sorry for me. I feel like I’m at such an advantage,” she says, noting the relief that comes from not having to worry about abnormal results each time she has a mammogram.

She thinks of a patient she later cared for as a nurse who had been diagnosed with breast cancer at age 29. After treatment, the woman’s scans appeared clear, but then, in her mid-30s, she was told the cancer had spread to her lungs and bones.

“She had a 3-year-old little girl she had to leave behind. And a husband,” Brack says with a waver in her voice. “And that’s when it hit me like a ton of bricks. I had such an advantage. I’d tell my mom, ‘Why not me? Why her? Why did God spare me—for me to have this knowledge [of the genetic mutation].’ She’s not much older than me, and she didn’t have that knowledge.”

 The Hunter sisters with mom

‘I’m going to go do this’

For much of her young life, Brack had focused on a career as a veterinarian. “A large-animal vet—horses and cows,” she says. But her focus changed when her mom was diagnosed with cancer. Her new career goal was to become an oncology nurse.

“I didn’t even know what oncology meant,” she says. “I just knew it was some kind of nurse who took care of my mom when she had cancer.”

The straight path to that career choice was “broken,” however, because Brack was not a model student in high school.

“I was a social butterfly,” she says. “I didn’t get good grades. I barely got by. I was just that cheerleader, little blond girl. I was just having fun. I was not worried about grades, which I needed to be, but I wasn’t at the time.”

People warned her that nursing school was difficult and demanding, and told her stories of people not being accepted or failing once they got in.

“So, I didn’t think I could do it,” she says. “High school was a struggle for me, much less a four-year degree in one of the hardest programs. So, that’s when I was like, ‘nah.’”

Instead, she, her sister and mom opened The Pink Stitch, a “fashion-forward” boutique in their hometown of Greensboro, Georgia, next to the cafe where Brack spent her teenage years waiting tables.

For several years, they worked together making a go of their love of fashion. But for Brack, the calling to be a nurse was too strong.

“After two years of working side by side with my sister and us fighting every day, I said, ‘I think I’m ready to go back to school,’” she says, adding that she still enjoys being a “silent partner” in the successful storefront and online boutique, and helps out by modeling the clothes for marketing purposes.

Once Brack made the decision to go to nursing school, there was no stopping her.

“I was like, ‘Ok, I’m going to go do this,’” she says. “That’s kind of how I am with a lot of things, though. I’ll drag my feet until I’m good and ready, but once I’m good and ready, there’s no changing my mind.”

She enrolled in community college to complete her core courses and made the president’s list each semester. After quickly completing those requirements, she was accepted early decision to Piedmont College in Athens, Georgia, one of the top nursing programs in the state.

“It was two years of hell, but I loved it,” she says, proud of her 3.6 GPA, something she never would have dreamed of in high school. “I didn’t think I could do it, and then it sparked something in me, and I was like, ‘I’m going to do it,’ and I did it.”

Before nursing school, a friend had taken her to visit Cancer Treatment Centers of America® (CTCA), Atlanta. Impressed with the facilities and the family feel, Brack decided then she wanted to work at CTCA® and fulfill her dream of becoming an oncology nurse.

“CTCA feels very welcoming,” she says. “There’s lots of hope.”

But just as she completed nursing school and was ready to enter the job market, the COVID-19 pandemic hit along with hiring freezes at many health care facilities. She ended up taking a job as a medical-surgical nurse at a nearby hospital until CTCA came calling.

“I knew it was the right thing to do because I knew I wanted to be at CTCA,” she says. “Cancer is my thing. I know that sounds bad, but it is. When it comes to cancer, I want to learn. I want to know.”

Brack says her life experiences and passion for caregiving offer a unique perspective and compassion for her patients, especially those who underwent the same surgery she had.

The Hunter sisters

 “I have one patient in particular,” she says. “We still keep in touch, and she told me, ‘You just made me feel so positive and confident because you went through the same thing, and you were able to kind of guide me and give me advice and make me feel better in that time.’

“I experienced it; I saw my mom do it, my sister do it, my grandmother. A lot of people haven’t had those experiences, so when they’re hit with it, it’s a lot heavier,” Brack says. But she’s also sensitive to people who don’t want to hear her story and simply need her to understand what they’re going through and to act with compassion for their unique case.

“People say it takes a special person to be an oncology nurse, and I thought they’re just chattering teeth, you know, until I started working here, and I realized it really does take special people to work in oncology,” Brack says. “The level of compassion that we hold for our patients is a lot deeper. And I think a lot of us are just really tough people because we see some bad things. We see some very sick people. At the end of the day, we realize we’re not doing this for us; we’re doing this for our patients.”

Brack’s path to oncology nurse was winding and filled with broken patches, but it ultimately led her to her passion. As the Rascal Flatts song says:

I got lost a time or two

Wiped my brow and kept pushin' through

“I had a friend ask me, ‘What makes you happy?’ and I was like, ‘I think doing things for other people. That’s what makes me happy,’” she says. “So, I think I knew it was the perfect path for me.”

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