Leukemia: dad's photos capture ISU student's battle

Noah Brown playing his guitar
Noah Brown playing guitar.

Noah Brown was a typical college student: he played intramural sports, spent time with his girlfriend, and focused on his studies at Iowa State University. He had never been seriously ill as a child growing up in Jesup, Iowa, mom Staci recalls–just more of the typical: colds, flu, headaches.

Then he stopped being typical.  In the fall of 2012, fatigue set in and mouth sores appeared that would not go away. Noah had not gotten canker sores before so when he woke up on Easter morning, 2013, with a bleeding canker sore, Staci became more and more concerned. She made an appointment for her son to see a doctor in Ames.

On April 9, 2013, Noah was told he had leukemia.

Noah’s doctor could not treat the cancer there, and gave him two recommendations: Either go to the Mayo Clinic or to the Holden Comprehensive Cancer Center at University of Iowa Hospitals & Clinics.

“Our choice was easy–we chose Holden,” says Noah’s father, Greg. “We’re really glad we did.”


Over the next eight months, Noah and his family made UI Hospitals & Clinics their second home. Noah, with the help of his cancer team, fought the leukemia tooth and nail. In December 2013, the cancer was gone.

Looking back on all that angst, Noah was understandably surprised by the initial diagnosis. “It never entered my mind that me, a pretty healthy kid, would come down with cancer.”

Staci says: “What goes through your mind, just being told your son has leukemia–it’s scary, there’s a lot to learn. But I feel everyone we came in contact with was doing a great job of keeping us educated, keeping us informed. When we were here, they made sure we knew what all of the options were.”

For Greg, learning his son had cancer was devastating.

“For me to hear Noah was diagnosed with leukemia was a pretty emotional moment.” He still tears up when he talks about that day, and the many days thereafter.

“You don’t expect your 20-year-old to have leukemia,” he says. “When you think leukemia you think little kids, you think older people. At 20 you don’t think you have to think about that.”

For the first week after learning his son’s diagnosis, Greg says he was “pretty emotional.” Staci, he says, was the “rock.” While he was trying to come to terms with his son’s illness, she was getting the technical medical information and the answers the family needed to make important decisions.

Soon Greg, a professional photographer, found a way to let himself deal with the diagnosis while chronicling Noah’s journey.

“I wondered, ‘Boy, should I shoot pictures of this? It’s my own son, but this is something I’ve been doing for years for other people, being a photojournalist at a newspaper.’ And then I thought, ‘Yes, I want to do this’,” he recalls.

Greg took pictures of almost everything along the way–trips to lunch in a hospital cafeteria, injections, chemotherapy, ports, needles. He also documented the care team that came to mean so much to the Brown family–fist bumps that came with good results, knowing expressions that accompanied questionable outcomes.

“We just kept thinking, this may be just our Noah, but there are many Noahs out there, whether they’re 18, 22, they’re in the same position that Noah is in. So just by the fact that we can get the story out, it may help in some way, help them get over the hump of, ‘I can’t do this.’ Yeah, you can.”

The family knew they needed to share the photos.

“We just wanted to be an inspiration to others,” Staci says. “It’s kind of a new normal for a while, but it’s not the normal for the rest of your life. Being surrounded not only by your friends and loved ones, but the staff of University of Iowa Hospitals & Clinics–they truly care about the patient and everybody.

“They may be treating the patient, but they help the whole family,” she says.

Noah credits the staff not only with the medical expertise to help send his cancer into remission, but for the relationships he built that helped his mental well-being, as well.

“The relationships that I have built here with nurses and doctors have been really beneficial to my treatment, to my mood, to my energy,” he says. “They just really care. They get excited when you get excited, they try to lift you up when you’re feeling down. They’re just like a family.”

Noah did not return to Iowa State for the fall 2013 semester–-most of that time was spent at home or in the hospital. But he returned to class in January 2014 and after his last finals, learned he had gotten A’s in all of his courses.  He was part of a young adult mission trip in Florida for eight weeks in the summer of 2014.

Now, he’s not afraid to dream.

“My hopes and dreams for the future would be to just stay healthy, stay active. Not let cancer become a crutch, but something that just makes me stronger.”

 –Fall 2014