Sitting in a hospital bed receiving her chemotherapy treatment, Alaskan Bush People matriarch Ami Brown holds her husband’s hand and winces as she tries to swallow a sip of water.
“It hurts. Everything hurts,” says the reality star, whose family has relocated from their homestead in rural Alaska to Southern California while she undergoes intense chemo and radiation therapy for lung cancer.
Her throat is raw from the radiation, she’s dropped from 128 lbs. to 89.4 lbs., and husband Billy says doctors have given them somber survival statistics (as low as 3 percent) — but Ami, 53, refuses to give up hope.
“I realized early into this that it’s very easy to want to give up and just die. And on the pessimist side, it could be my last days,” she says. “But I have the will to fight.”
In her only interview since her diagnosis earlier this year, the mother of seven opens up to PEOPLE about the months she suffered in silence, how her family is coping, and why she wants the cameras capturing her health crisis:
When did you first realize something was wrong?
Last fall I had some pain in my back. Walking from the house to the garden, I would get winded. There were days I was just bedridden, but I just thought it was my arthritis. We were filming the show and at times it was all I could do to just stand there — I was in so much pain. When we were shooting promo shots I told them, “There’s something wrong.” In December I went to the dentist to get impressions made for new teeth and when they did a scan they noticed a little capsule. That’s how this all started.
How have your kids been handling your diagnosis?
Everyone is taking it a little differently. We’ve been together and close their entire lives but they’re grown now. They have to strengthen their wings a little. This was a little drastic for strengthening … there are good days and bad days – for them and for me. But they handle their emotions pretty good. There are days that they have to talk about it and then talk about it again. I have faith that they will remain strong.
RELATED VIDEO: An Exclusive Clip from Wednesday’s 2-Hour Season Finale of Alaskan Bush People
Do you spend a lot of time thinking about the worst case scenario?
Worrying about it only makes it worse. There is hope and that hope is having faith in God. You can’t give up. I tell people be happy. Just be happy. It’s a choice. Things can be hard and you just want to curl up but you have to shine.
You’ve made some fast friends at the hospital.
People ask for photos in the elevator and I get their phone numbers so I can text with them. There was a lady who is dying of a very rare lung disease. It brought tears of joy to her eyes to see me and I’m just so humbled to bring a little happiness into her life. Another woman has these rubber bracelets that say “God’s got this” and she gave us some. I gave the lady my bracelet. It meant a lot to me when the woman gave it to me but it meant even more to be able to give it to someone else.
What has the support of your fans meant to you?
People will stop us at red lights on our way in and tell us their whole church is praying for us. I want people to see what a big giant family we feel a part of. The world needs more of that. I hear that there are a lot of people out in the world that have been sending me well wishes and we wanted to do this [interview] and let people see what we’re going through because there are a lot of people that are going to be told one day that they have cancer. And that’s scary. I was nervous as a cat the first time I went in for radiation. I hope if people watch the show and see what I’m going through and it will take away a lot of their fear.
The 2-hour season finale of Alaskan Bush People airs Wednesday at 9 p.m. ET on Discovery.