From Co-Workers to Pink Sisters: When Mission and Cancer Collide
Written by Joyce Romine, former Foundation For Barnes-Jewish Hospital employee, contributor and breast cancer survivor
Wednesday, October 19, 2022
Cancer isn't choosy. It can affect anyone, anywhere.
Two team members at The Foundation for Barnes-Jewish Hospital went from being co-workers to pink sisters after both were diagnosed with breast cancer. Both women found their cancer through a routine mammogram. And both share their personal story to remind other women about the importance of regular mammograms.
While their journeys were unique, their experiences also highlight just how important the Foundation's work is in raising funds for cancer research at The Alvin J. Siteman Cancer Center at Barnes-Jewish Hospital and Washington University School of Medicine.
Marilyn's Story: Facing Fears with Trust
Marilyn Sheperd joined the Foundation as a philanthropy officer in 2016. A year later, after a routine mammogram, she received a dreaded call from a nurse at Siteman while she was at work.
"I remember it as if it was yesterday," Marilyn says. "The nurse said the words 'invasive lobular carcinoma' slowly. The word 'carcinoma' hit me like a bullet. I couldn't speak."
Marilyn's husband, Scott, quickly began researching her diagnosis, surgeons and her options as Marilyn came to terms with her journey ahead.
"I took a deep breath and realized I have valuable resources right here at Siteman because I've worked with many doctors through the Foundation," Marilyn says. "I asked myself who would I trust with my body?"
The easy answer was Tim Eberlein, MD, a breast surgeon and director of Siteman Cancer Center.
"In our first conversation, he reassured me that I was going to be fine," Marilyn says. "I trusted him so much. I learned I must have uncompromising, spot-on trust in this person because you may think you know things but you don't."
Marilyn's cancer was stage 3 with one positive lymph node. Dr. Eberlein recommended a single mastectomy of the affected breast.
"All my life, I thought having a mastectomy would be the most horrible, hideous, painful thing I could imagine," Marilyn says. "But Dr. Eberlein comforted me and assured me it's not as painful as I imagined."
He was right.
Marilyn had the first stage of reconstruction at the same time as her mastectomy. Just two days after her surgery, she was able to go shopping briefly with her daughter. One week later, she was back at work at the Foundation.
"Never for a moment did I question my decision to go to Siteman for treatment because I know what they're capable of," she says. "I wouldn't have picked any other place in the world other than Siteman. The experience wasn't a picnic, but they make it easier by being so good."
Making Time for Mammograms
Marilyn kicks herself for canceling a previously scheduled mammogram due to a work obligation. Two months later, she casually went in for her rescheduled routine mammogram. A few days later, she received a letter asking her to come back for a diagnostic mammogram and ultrasound because there was something unusual on her imaging.
"During the ultrasound, they found three areas of concern and sent me for a biopsy," Marilyn says. " But I still didn't think it was cancer. I had a sense of denial because it had always been fine before."
But it wasn't fine this time. Marilyn is grateful she didn't wait longer to have a mammogram.
"I had always done self-exams, but if I had waited for the cancer to grow larger to notice it, the cancer would have been further down the line with a worse outcome," she says.
Dr. Eberlein credits a thorough mammogram for finding the cancer because invasive lobular carcinoma can be difficult to detect.
Personalized Treatment for a Healthier Future
After surgery, Marilyn's cancer cells were sent for genomic testing, called a Mammaprint, to determine if her breast cancer was likely to metastasize. She was grateful to learn the chance of cancer returning was only 2%.
"We weighed the odds of it returning versus the side effects of treatment and decided not to do chemo or radiation," she says.
Because Marilyn had estrogen receptor-positive breast cancer, she takes a daily hormone therapy drug called Letrazole to lower estrogen levels in her body to further reduce the chance of cancer recurring. She also receives a twice-yearly infusion of a drug to strengthen her bones to counter the effects of hormone therapy.
"At a recent scan, my bones around my spine are actually stronger than they were before hormone therapy," Marilyn says.
While the experience of having cancer can be devastating, Marilyn says it also has been empowering. "Looking cancer in the face makes you wiser and braver for other things."
Now nearly five years since her diagnosis, the Foundation's work is even more meaningful to her.
"Events such as Illumination and Pedal the Cause mean so much to me," Marilyn says. "I volunteer each year for Pedal the Cause and would never not do that now.
"I'm so grateful that there is a Siteman Cancer Center for all of us."
Marilyn feels compelled to reach out to other women going through breast cancer to help ease their fears and worries.
"Breast cancer is a sisterhood," she says. "It's one you don't strive to be in, but it's like a sorority of compassion, tenderness and kindness to each other."
She recognizes that having a mammogram likely saved her life and is passionate about encouraging other women to be diligent about scheduling their mammograms.
"It's a cliché, but it's just so true: Women put their health on the back burner—that's why we have to take care of each other. I always ask people if they've had their mammograms because it's a simple thing we can do."
Lindsey's Story: An Isolated, Yet Eye-Opening Journey
Lindsey Tischer, executive assistant at the Foundation, joined the pink sisterhood with Marilyn in 2020, just as the pandemic hit.
Unfortunately, breast cancer wasn't a stranger to her family. Lindsey's grandma died of the disease at age 50, and Lindsey's mom, first diagnosed at age 40, is a three-time breast cancer survivor.
Because of the strong family history, Lindsey has had annual mammograms since age 30. But the one she had at age 40 changed the course of her life. And the timing was during an already stressful period in all our lives.
"I remember getting the phone call on March 17, 2020, while I was packing up my Foundation office to go home because COVID was hitting," Lindsey says. "It was surreal. We had no idea what was to come or what it would mean for my treatment during that time."
In those early months of the pandemic, the world was grappling with the life-altering impact of COVID, and the health care world was turned upside down trying to keep patients and staff safe. That meant Lindsey faced stressful, emotional appointments and procedures alone—without the vital support of her husband or family—due to COVID-19 restrictions.
A week after her diagnosis, she went alone to Siteman for an MRI to determine if she had cancer anywhere else. She was able to personally meet with her breast oncology surgeon at Siteman and then met her plastic reconstruction surgeon through telemedicine.
In the early months of COVID, it was unclear how the virus was spread, so Lindsey was fearful she would catch the illness just by being in the hospital.
"To prepare for surgery, I wanted to go to Target to get some button down pajamas, but I was afraid," Lindsey says. "I wanted to feel normal, but the world wasn't normal. I handled laundry with gloves. I was worried about getting COVID that would mean I couldn't have surgery. COVID was a big additional stressor during this time."
A Changed Outlook, A Grateful Heart
After some delay due to COVID, Lindsey finally had her first surgery May 27, 2020. The day of her surgery, her husband and family sent her off from the parking lot of Barnes-Jewish West County Hospital since they couldn't come inside.
Thankfully, the mammogram caught Lindsey's cancer early before it had spread to any lymph nodes. Lindsey was stage 1, estrogen-receptor positive breast cancer. Because of her family history, she had a double mastectomy and reconstructive surgery.
Lindsey had an Oncotype genomic test to determine if she would benefit from chemotherapy. Lindsey's low score meant she didn't require chemotherapy. She also didn't need radiation.
She will take a hormone therapy drug called Tamoxifen for the next five to 10 years to reduce the risk of cancer recurrence.
"I'm thankful to work at the Foundation, live in St. Louis and know about Siteman Cancer Center," she says. "It was an absolute privilege to be treated at such a highly rated cancer center. It makes you feel better from the start."
Her experience also led her to take stock in her life. "I was reminded of the special support system of people I have. They dropped off meals and sent so much love. It was remarkable, and I felt so taken care of. That part was magical in a way. I'm grateful for the love and support I received. I'm also grateful to be healthy now and that I can live life."
In addition to her experience with breast cancer during the difficult COVID era, Lindsey also lost her father suddenly in February 2021. She is close to her family, and this shocking blow was challenging.
"Losing my dad plus this experience with breast cancer changes you," she says. "Now I don't take the time with people I love for granted. I make time for important things and appreciate life more."
Before she was diagnosed with breast cancer, she had attended several of the Foundation's Illumination galas and was always struck by the powerful videos featuring patients with cancer. Since cancer, she has a new perspective.
"It's eye opening to see how many people have cancer," she says. "What the Foundation does to support cancer research is so important because cancer can affect anyone. Researchers are working to make cancer more of a chronic, manageable disease and to be part of an organization working toward that is a blessing."
Sharing the Mammogram Message
Although the Foundation team was working virtually during the time of Lindsey's diagnosis and treatment, Lindsey says she and Marilyn had a "heart to heart" because of their pink sisterhood bond. Like Marilyn, Lindsey is passionate about advocating for mammograms.
In a virtual Foundation team meeting during the pandemic, Lindsey shared her diagnosis as part of a Mission Moment to demonstrate the importance of the team's work in creating a world without cancer.
"I'm very lucky to be here," she says. "So many people are fighting cancer. If I convinced one person to get a mammogram by sharing my story, it matters a lot. Any chance to talk about breast cancer is important. Because if you can change one person's mind about having a mammogram, you can literally save a life."
Schedule your mammogram today.