One in a Million
“One in a million” is often seen as a compliment. To Brooke Penny, it means something quite different.
It began one day in December of 2021, when the avid tennis player was not feeling like herself.
After an initial doctor’s visit didn’t give any answers, she visited the emergency room. The CAT scan they performed showed a tumor on her pancreas. She was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and given four to eight months to live.
“Immediately I had to drop out of all of my tennis and let people know,” Penny said. “The whole tennis community — all the DelTri teams, all the teams up and down the Main Line and Brandywine — they all sent me cards and came to visit. I was so supported by the tennis community.”
She credits that support with helping her through some of the toughest months of her life.
As she prepared for what she expected to be the final part of her life, she received news that she was misdiagnosed. There was a tumor on her pancreas, but the cancer spread from the peritoneum (the serous membrane that lines the abdominal cavity). It turned out that Penny has Primary Peritoneal Cancer (PPC) — a rare cancer that starts in the thin layer of tissue lining the inside of the abdomen. Providers diagnose fewer than 7 in 1 million cases every year of this incurable cancer.
After two rounds of chemotherapy for pancreatic cancer, Penny changed course to treat her PPC. In the middle of her chemotherapy treatments, she had a hysterectomy with debulking of tumors and went through another treatment that combined surgery with chemotherapy. In 2022, she finished up her last of eight total rounds of chemotherapy.
Penny felt weak and said she couldn’t imagine ever playing tennis again, but her tennis community had other plans.
Everyone rallied around Penny, sending her gift certificates for lessons with local teaching pro Leslie Pixley, and when the gift certificates ran out, Pixley gave Penny free lessons.
Penny and Pixley would hit the court for 15-minute lessons, slowly building her strength and endurance. Once she felt up to it, Penny began subbing in ladies contracts in the area and finally made it back to playing in USTA Leagues in the spring.
“Tennis has been my saving grace because of the kindness from everybody in the tennis world,” Penny said. “I love tennis so much, it has forced me to try and get strong again, nothing else would have inspired me to work so hard.”
Now, Penny finds herself preparing for Nationals in Surprise, Ariz. in November with her 75 and Over team. As a member of West Chester Country Club, Penny plays on three teams in the summer and another in the fall.
She sees her oncologist every three months, with very positive recent feedback.
Penny has been assured that her cancer will come back, so she is not taking anything for granted and says she is living each day to the fullest. She says she’s living with a sense of urgency more than a sense of fear.
This attitude also trickled into her tennis, playing what she calls “first strike” tennis, getting points over quickly and with intention. Focusing on the things she does have, and does well, as opposed to what she is lacking.
“When I was younger I was very hard on myself if I lost or made mistakes,” Penny said. “I think I’ve learned how self-defeating that is, same as in life right now. I didn’t think that I had long to live, so now I’m trying to be more loving, kind and gracious with everybody – the tennis world and not the tennis world.”
Gratitude is something else Penny is feeling these days. She mentioned Peggy Sears and Joan Moser, the captains of a 75 and Over Interdistrict team, who had faith in her playing abilities when she didn’t quite have it in herself. She also thanked Pixley for the free lessons, and Nan Barash and Elaine Boswell who were incredible supporters from the get-go, along with her family and friends.
“The support I got was so overwhelming that I feel like I’ll never be able to give it back,” Penny said. “I hope that sharing my story and my appreciation for everyone’s support can do that.”