Before Bob Brams’ eyelids grew heavy and he drifted off to sleep, he was trying, as always, to stay positive. It was the night of Sept. 14, 2022, and the next morning he was scheduled to undergo an MRI that would reveal whether the tumor in the left frontal lobe of his brain had grown, or whether he could exhale until his next scan four months later.
At 63, Brams is not the athlete he was years ago. That’s understandable. Who among us is? But in his brain—now the venue for a fight between life and death—he was as strong as ever, plotting a game plan for victory.
“Oddly enough, it’s like prepping for a wrestling match,” he says of his thoughts that night. “You’ve got to win. You’ve got to beat this thing.”
The battle that began in late 2014, after an innocuous fender bender led to the discovery of the tumor, will continue for the rest of Brams’ life. He can accept that. What he won’t do is give in to despair, stop living while he’s still breathing, or fade away without making his mark in the campaign against cancer.
Brams’ successful legal career is over. It was a fatality caused by the tumor and a cavalcade of health crises that followed. He misses his work, but he doesn’t dwell on the loss. Today, he advocates for cancer research. When he’s not raising money to fight the disease through the sale and signings of his book Forever Optimistic: Fighting Brain Cancer, Finding Your Best Path, and Leading a Life With Purpose, he’s living the mantra laid out in its pages. He revels in life’s little miracles, as he sees them. Enjoying a lively lunch with old friends. Taking in a pleasant evening with his wife, Kim, and their 9-year-old dog, Leo, on the front porch of their Bethesda home. Watching a wrestling match with their 26-year-old son, Garrett.
“I look at miracles differently than I ever did,” he says. “You have to not set your standards too high for miracles, or you might not have one.”
In some ways, Brams already has benefited from several. After two brain surgeries, a hemorrhagic stroke, a coma, a hemophilia diagnosis, radiation and chemotherapy, somehow he’s still here.
And he plans to stay.
“I’m not going to die. I’m just not going to,” he says defiantly. “You have to just try to keep going.What else can you do?”
After the September 2022 MRI at Sibley Memorial Hospital in Washington, D.C., he went home and waited for the results. When they came via a video chat about four excruciating hours later, his relentless optimism had been rewarded.
Stable. The tumor had not expanded.
“It feels like I’ve been given the opportunity to become more effective in the fight against cancer,” he says. “It’s like you kind of have a new lease on life.”
Brams grew up in Wilmington, Delaware, where athletics played a big role in his life from an early age. He started wrestling in the seventh grade, and immediately was taken with the discipline and toughness the sport requires.
He was a hotshot in middle school, winning most of his matches. Then he got to high school and started tasting defeat. The losses hardened his resolve, and by his senior year he was captain of the team and posted an undefeated regular season.
“That’s kind of the story of my life,” he says. “I start average and get better.”
He wrestled for two years at Muhlenberg College in Allentown, Pennsylvania, where he says he was both a so-so wrestler and student. Despite his middling grades, he became intrigued by the law.
“I saw the competitive aspects of it, winning cases and clients,” he says. “It just seemed to fit with the way I thought about life.”
After graduating from what’s now the Quinnipiac University School of Law, he clerked in the U.S. Court of Federal Claims in Washington, D.C., which led to a career in government contracts and construction law. He eventually joined the renowned D.C. firm Patton Boggs as a partner, working on high-profile cases like the cleanup projects for Hurricane Katrina and Superstorm Sandy.
“Bob got the toughest assignments and always found a great solution,” says Jeff Craven, his friend and former colleague at Patton Boggs. “I remember one of our trips to the Middle East in the early 2000s. He was heading the legal team for the new international airport in Doha, Qatar. It was a very big job. Multiyear, dozens of vendors, lots of complexity. Bob handled the very difficult negotiations, but he had the human touch. His ability to listen to people and find a solution has always been one of his strengths.”
Naturally, working on huge cases around the globe was all-consuming. When he was in town, he’d often come home at 8 p.m., grab a bite to eat, then work well into the night.
“We would go on vacation, and the plane doors would be closing, and I would sit in the seat thinking, Is he going to make it?” says Kim, whom he married in 1989. “We would arrive at our destination and there would be file boxes in our hotel room.”
Once Garrett and their daughter, Taylor, now 25, came along, Brams somehow made time for them. He prided himself on never missing a game or a teacher conference. When Garrett started wrestling at age 6, Brams put a mat in the basement.
“We were down there almost every night,” his son says.
Brams was thriving professionally, financially and physically. He felt great in December 2014 as he headed to a routine cardiology appointment. While he was stopped on Willard Avenue near River Road, just a few minutes from his doctor’s office, a car hit him from behind.
It was such a minor accident that the police weren’t called, and Brams continued on to the doctor. The driver of the other car couldn’t have been going more than 25 mph, Brams guesses.
But in the days and weeks that followed, Brams experienced tingling in his neck and fingers. He was inclined to ignore it, but the family was set to vacation in Mexico, so out of an abundance of caution, Kim’s uncle, a physician, recommended that he get an MRI before they left.
On Dec. 19, 2014, Brams drove himself to Sibley for the scan. After it was done, he planned to head home to a Hanukkah party the family was hosting, and in a few days to be sitting on the beach soaking up the sun without a care in the world.
Kim was greeting guests when her phone rang. It was Bob. It’s not a big deal, he told his wife, but the scan had revealed a spot on his brain. You don’t have to come down to the hospital, he said.
“I hung up on him and I came right down,” she says.
Decades earlier, Brams had seen a neurologist after experiencing persistent headaches. An MRI then showed a spot on his brain, which was diagnosed as scar tissue probably caused from his wrestling days. No need to worry, he was told.
But now the spot had apparently doubled in size. The couple’s holiday party went on without them, and doctors kept Bob overnight at Sibley, concerned about a possible seizure. In the ensuing weeks, the Bramses showed Bob’s scan to several doctors, and they received differing opinions on its seriousness. Finally they shared it with a neighbor who was a neurosurgeon. He was sufficiently alarmed that he immediately contacted Dr. Henry Brem, the chief of neurosurgery at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, who told Brams to make an appointment to see him as soon as possible.
During an eight-hour surgery on Jan. 13, 2015, at Hopkins, Brem removed as much of the roughly golf ball-size tumor as possible. But he couldn’t get it all. Brams was diagnosed with a grade 2 oligodendroglioma brain tumor. It wasn’t yet cancerous, but it was an extremely big problem.
According to the Cleveland Clinic, about 1,200 people in the U.S. are diagnosed with oligodendrogliomas each year. They make up about 4% of all primary brain tumors.
“The problem with these tumors is that they’re intimately involved with the normal brain,” Brem says. “That’s the complicating factor in removing these successfully. As you go beyond where it’s pure tumor and you start to go where it’s brain infiltrated by tumor, there’s a need to get the tumor out, but there’s also a risk of damage to the brain. In that sense, [Bob’s surgery] was extremely difficult.”
The relative five-year survival rate for oligodendroglioma is 74.1%, according to the National Cancer Institute, but factors including the tumor grade and type, traits of the cancer, and the person’s age and overall health affect the prognosis.
Brams was asymptomatic before his surgery, and he was lucid after it. But in the neuro-intensive care unit that night, Kim began noticing some odd behavior.
“Bob just didn’t seem right,” she says. “He grabbed the back of his neck and said, ‘Ow.’ I said, ‘What’s wrong?’ He wasn’t making sense. I knew something was wrong.”
Brams was suffering a hemorrhagic stroke. Despite the fact that the surgery was on the front of his brain, this was occurring in the back. Brams was put on life support for a week, during which Kim was told that he was the sickest patient in the unit.
“We just had to pray,” Kim says.
After a month at Hopkins, Brams was transferred to MedStar National Rehabilitation Hospital in Washington, D.C., where he stayed for three weeks. He had trauma to his vocal cords, struggled with his balance and had difficulty walking.
Although he hasn’t regained much of his memory from the months following surgery, and his voice remains damaged from the stroke and being intubated, Brams’ condition slowly improved over the next three years. His health issues forced him to retire from his job as co-chair of the government contracts and projects group at Greenberg Traurig, the firm he had joined in June 2014. But he was alive. That was most important.
Physical, occupational and speech therapy filled his days. His wrestling background, both he and Kim believe, played a key role in his resilience.
“We do think everything he went through medically, the nightmare, that discipline of wrestling really helped him with the mindset,” Kim says. “He was so far down he had to come back.”
Despite the fear and anxiety that returned before every new scan, Brams remained staunchly optimistic about his future. But in 2018, an MRI showed that a portion of the tumor had enhanced. It was now grade 3—Brams had brain cancer.
A second surgery, this time at the University of California San Francisco, was scheduled. Before it, tests showed that Brams had hemophilia. He wonders if that may have played a role in his stroke following his first surgery.
This time, things went more smoothly. The five-hour surgery, performed by Dr. Mitchel Berger, who was appointed to President Biden’s Cancer Panel in July, removed more of the tumor, and hours after leaving the operating room, Brams was standing up. Three days later he was released from the hospital and walking the hilly sidewalks of San Francisco.
He underwent six weeks of radiation followed by months of chemotherapy. The radiation damaged his left optic nerve, which affects his sight and depth perception.
Brams, Kim says, is not the same as he was before, and she doesn’t expect that he ever will be. While he looks to be in great shape, he’s physically weaker and tires easily. He has difficulty reading, focusing and concentrating, and has aversions to noise and sunlight. He still struggles with his speech, so when they’re together with others, she often does most of the talking.
The tumor is now stable, according to Brem. But there’s no telling what the future holds. The harsh reality is that years could pass without it growing, or it could grow before the next scan.
“The hardest thing for me personally was watching the guy that was there for me unconditionally my entire life have to be out there like a wrestler fighting this by himself,” Garrett says. “We’re his teammates; we’re his biggest supporters; we’re going to do everything we can. But at the end of the day, this fight is between him and cancer.”
Brams has always had a way with words, both spoken and written. In his previous life, he wrote a book on construction law, and more than two years after his first surgery he began typing his thoughts on his circumstances. Progress was slow, but he found the exercise therapeutic, and began emailing what were essentially journal entries to a small group of family and friends.
Four painstaking years later, Forever Optimistic was released. The foreword is written by Sen. Chris Coons, a fellow former wrestler from Delaware. Part memoir, part self-help, the book details the ways in which Brams’ life has changed during his ordeal.
“My medical situation has helped to focus my attention on what I believe is important, and my thoughts revolve around a new set of the uncertainties that have now become very vivid,” he writes. “Hopefully my new-found perspective can help you in thinking about your own life, especially in times of pain, suffering, and uncertainty.”
The legendary wrestler Dan Gable famously said, “Once you’ve wrestled, everything else in life is easy.” Bob Brams has certainly stretched that sentiment to its limit. Nothing in his fight has been painless, but the challenges he’s faced have not broken him.
“I wrestled for so long, you start to get a mindset that it makes you tougher,” he says. “My father always used to say in high school before a match, ‘Get the takedown.’ The takedown is beating cancer. That’s my goal.”
Mike Unger is a writer and editor who grew up in Montgomery County and lives in Baltimore.