Erin Schellert finally decided to have a benign growth removed from her breast last year. As a mom of two young children, she had breastfed for two years each; the growth had become uncomfortable.
After her pre-op ultrasound, the radiologist discovered another small tumor that seemed suspicious. Two weeks prior, she had undergone breast exams that didn’t find anything irregular.
“Let’s just go ahead and check this out,” the radiologist suggested.
The biopsy came back cancerous.
Additional scans showed the breast cancer had spread to the bones in her hip and neck, to her lungs and into her brain. Schellert is a 37-year-old stay-at-home mom in Kirkwood, Missouri, with a 3-year-old son and 5-year-old daughter. Doctors diagnosed her with Stage 4 metastatic breast cancer.
Prior to this diagnosis, she had no serious symptoms other than feeling tired and having a dry cough.
“I thought it was just being a mom in the springtime,” she said. The tumor itself was very small, but the type of breast cancer is aggressive.
Initially, Schellert refused to Google anything about her illness.
“I didn’t want to know how bad things are,” she said. That lasted about a week. The five-year survival stats for her type of breast cancer are around 25% and even lower if it has metastasized into the brain.
She’s determined to beat those odds. She underwent pinpoint radiation and eight rounds of traditional chemotherapy, plus two targeted therapies. She will remain on targeted therapies and treatment for as long as they work. She goes for scans every three months.
“I’m lucky that 15 months out, I’m still on my first line of treatment,” she said. Her brain scans were clear, other tumors had shrunk and some stayed the same. When her body stops responding to this treatment, they’ll move onto the next one.
There is no cure. She joined an online group for women under 40 who have metastatic breast cancer, where the conversation is different from typical breast cancer survivor groups.
“We have no expiration date,” they tell one another. “Don’t let any doctor or Dr. Google tell you how long you have to live.”
But with this positivity and perseverance, there is also preparation.
They talk about the boxes they are making -- the letters they are leaving for children for future birthdays and milestones. Schellert, who loves holiday traditions, even started a journal for her husband with detailed instructions on how to re-create their family traditions -- just in case.
All their plans for summer 2019 were stolen from them by chemo; the pandemic took this past summer.
“This was the summer we were supposed to make up for last summer,” she said. “You have this list of things you want to do and memories you want to make, and we don’t have the opportunity to do it.”
The biggest thing on their list is to take their children to visit all 50 states. Right now, she says they live in three-month increments -- from scan to scan.
This week, her scans told a different story from last time.
They showed progression of the cancer.
“I’ll have the potential to be significantly immunocompromised on my new treatment protocol while entering flu season in the middle of a pandemic,” she texted after she got the news.
She also said the day’s report is why she volunteers for METAvivor, a nonprofit dedicated to increasing awareness of advanced breast cancer and equity in research and patient support. Metastatic breast cancer gets overlooked in the conversation about early detection and survivors.
Schellert is advocating for more research, better treatment and a cure one day. Until then, she is also working on the journals she purchased for each child. She’s organizing them into sections -- one to be read each year on their birthdays, another section for first days of school, a special letter when they turn 16 or when her daughter becomes a mom.
“I want them to know the words I would say if I were there to say them,” she said.