Cancer Journey

Fighting Breast Cancer and Advocating for Patients as a Team

A mother-daughter duo uses their personal experiences as patient and caregiver to educate and empower other women

By Katie Ressler

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Fighting breast cancer requires a team of experts who know how to target and destroy breast cancer cells with treatments. It also requires a team of caregivers who support the patient as a whole—mind, body and spirit. For Cheryl M., her team started with her daughter, Erica M., a pharmacist at Cancer Treatment Centers of America® (CTCA).

Cheryl’s Story

When her annual mammogram was due, Cheryl went to CTCA® Chicago in Zion, Illinois, to have her screening. Her mammogram didn’t detect any signs of cancer, but because of her breast density, an ultrasound was recommended for her. Luckily, the ultrasound helped detect early signs of breast cancer. Through additional testing, Cheryl was diagnosed with ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS).

“I have been going to CTCA for my yearly mammogram and ultrasound for at least 10 years.  In March 2018, the day of my yearly appointment was just like another day,” says Cheryl. “The last word I thought I would ever hear was cancer, especially when I had no symptoms at all. When I was diagnosed with DCIS, I was more mentally blown away than worried about the cancer. I never thought I would hear that word.”

DCIS is the most common type of noninvasive breast cancer, with about 60,000 new cases diagnosed in the United States each year. About one in every five new breast cancer cases is DCIS. The form of breast cancer is often treated with lumpectomy, followed by radiation to reduce the risk of recurrence.

During Cheryl’s surgery at CTCA, her team was able to test her lymph nodes quickly while she was still in surgery. Because there were no cancer cells in her lymph nodes, she was able to receive intraoperative radiation therapy (IORT).

IORT delivers a concentrated dose of radiation therapy to a tumor bed during surgery, helping to kill microscopic disease, reduce radiation treatment times or provide an added radiation boost. It is performed immediately following the removal of a breast lump, before the lumpectomy incision is closed. A large dose of radiation is focused directly on the surgery site.

“Within a month of surgery, I went back to CTCA to find out I was cancer-free, and no more treatment was needed,” says Cheryl. 

A Daughter’s Support

No matter how familiar you are with cancer and its treatments, receiving news about a cancer diagnosis is still shocking. For Erica, who serves cancer patients as a member of the CTCA pharmacy, her mother’s diagnosis was devastating.

“I think I had a million of thoughts and emotions at that minute when I heard the diagnosis,” explains Erica. “I just remember tears streaming down my face and thinking, how can this be happening? I never actually thought it would hit so close to home.”

Immediately, Erica stepped into the role of caregiver, trying to help her mom find the strength and resilience to make it through treatment and heal. Together, they formed a cancer-fighting team.

“I think my biggest fear was getting her emotionally and physically through the treatment,” says Erica. “Clinically, I knew the multitude of successful treatment options that CTCA has available for breast cancer patients, but I also knew how strong emotionally and physically a person needs to be to go through cancer treatment.”

Because of her work at CTCA, Erica understood the impact of a positive outlook. Because she knew her mother had a remarkable care team, she focused her energy on helping meet her mother’s needs, encouraging her along the way.

“Having my daughter by my side and knowing she would be with me all the way gave me comfort so I could think about myself,” says Cheryl. 

“I really tried to teach my mother how to relax and eliminate unneeded daily stress. I wanted her body to use all its energy on healing after her surgery. I also tried to keep her positive through the whole process,” says Erica. “I was with her at every appointment for guidance and to ask questions but most importantly to listen to her needs and wishes.”

Being Advocates

Even before Cheryl’s DCIS diagnosis, both she and Erica were advocates for cancer patients. For many years, both had volunteered and helped raise money for Assistance in Healthcare and Gateway for Cancer ResearchSM.

Assistance in Healthcare recognizes the financial strain that a cancer diagnosis can have on patients and their families. It raises funds to help patients with non-medical expenses, such as mortgage or rent expenses, groceries, utility bills, and childcare, among others.

The mission of Gateway for Cancer Research is to fund meaningful and breakthrough clinical trials worldwide that help people living with cancer to feel better, live longer and conquer cancer today.

While they both continue to support these organizations, Cheryl and Erica have also become vocal advocates for early screening and detection.

“Both my mother and I have focused our efforts on educating family and friends about the importance of early detection and screening for breast cancer,” says Erica. “My mother was diagnosed from a yearly mammogram and ultrasound. If this was not found as early as it was, her treatment and outcome would have likely not been the same.”

Inspired to Fight for a Team

One of the ways that Erica began supporting the cancer community was through fundraising races: “I started running about 4 years ago with The Gateway for Cancer Research to raise awareness and funds for new therapies to help patients fighting cancer. I ran in honor of a good friend who lost his battle with sarcoma at a very early age.”

She continued to run, and while she was training for the Chicago Marathon in 2018, she learned about Fred’s Team, Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center’sTM (MSK) athletic fundraising program. Fred’s Team participates in the New York City Marathon, United Airlines NYC Half, and Virgin Money London Marathon, raising money for cancer research at MSK, with a goal of leading to new and better treatment options for patients worldwide.

“Their slogan hit me hard, ‘Imagine a world without cancer,’” says Erica. “I started looking into the team more and decided to apply. I wrote a short essay of my professional career, my employer, and my mother. Within 24 hours, they emailed me about how touched they were and told me I would be perfect for their team. It was the perfect fit for me. That was my first New York Marathon and not my last.”

As a participant of Fred’s Team for the New York City Marathon, Erica raised $3,500 to support their mission, and the team as a whole raised more than $6 million dollars. Fred’s Team has raised over $84 million since its inception.

Running has become a passion for Erica. Despite continuing to find inspiration through these races, the mileage, in training and during the race, is challenging. That’s where her personal connection to cancer and her experience working with cancer patients comes in to fuel her.

“I will never be as strong as my mother or the cancer patients I see every day, but there is something about the cheering crowds during a race that make me feel that I can make a difference, and to never stop fighting for these patients just like they fight every day,” she says. “Honestly, when I am running one of the thoughts that constantly runs through my head especially when I am starting to wear down is, ‘If these individuals can battle for their lives every day, you can finish this race for them.’”