When Krissy Posey was diagnosed with breast cancer at only 28, the first words out of her mouth were, “Okay. Just
tell me what I need to do next.” Her next steps were to get a second and third opinion before returning to NorthShore for treatment, choosing the expertise of Katharine Yao, MD, and the team of caregivers at NorthShore Kellogg Cancer Center for a bilateral
mastectomy and chemotherapy, followed by reconstruction.
In her NorthShore patient story, Krissy recounts the difficult and surprising moments of her battle with breast cancer, but also how and why she found the strength to smile:
How did your journey to diagnosis begin?
I hadn’t started mammograms since I was only in my twenties. I don’t really have a family history of breast cancer other than a great-aunt who has been battling the disease for over 10 years.
I came home from work one day and, as I was stepping out of my work clothes, I felt an itch in my right breast. When I went to scratch it, I felt a small mass. I was on the phone with my sister at the time and told her I felt a lump in my breast and she
encouraged me to get it checked out.
What went through your head when you learned that you had breast cancer at only 28?
I was at work when I received the call from my doctor, Catherine Dillon. She asked me if I wanted to come into the office for the results. I told her to just lay it on me. After she told me that she didn’t have good news, that the test came back indicating
cancer, my response was, “Okay. Just tell me what I need to do next.”
Dr. Dillon said the doctors wanted to see me right away. In a matter of two hours, I was told that I had cancer, made my way to the hospital and was sitting in a room with Dr. Yao discussing my diagnosis and next steps. I remained calm and at peace during
this time. Yes, it was all happening so fast but after I got off the phone with Dr. Dillon, I prayed and then called my family to tell them the news.
What stood out about your care at NorthShore?
After receiving a second and even third opinion at other healthcare facilities, I came back to Northshore for treatment. My team of doctors included: Catherine Dillon, MD, Obstetrics/Gynecology; Katharine Yao, MD, General Surgery; Teresa Law, MD, Medical Oncology;
Mark Sisco, MD, Plastic Reconstruction Surgery and, of course, all of their fabulous nurses.
My team of doctors and nurses are simply the best in the business. I wasn’t just a patient to them; I was a person. They showed care and concern, and made what could have been a very traumatic time in my life a lot easier to get through. I never second guessed
the treatment I received. I trusted the doctors and their recommendations.
What was the most difficult part of treatment?
The doses of Adriamycin Cytoxan (chemotherapy drug). The nurses call it the “Red Devil,” and now I know why. The medicine is red and really takes a toll on your body. After a while, I couldn’t even eat or drink anything red without getting nauseated.
What surprised you most about the experience?
This may sound bad but I was surprised that I didn’t “look” as sick as I thought I would during such an extensive treatment plan. It was important to me to look as “normal” as I could and not show many signs of weakness for two reasons: 1) That’s how I chose
not to let the disease get the best of me and 2) I wanted to remain strong for my family. I knew if they saw me in a certain condition that it would really worry them.
What advice would you give other women currently undergoing treatment?
Try to be positive, see what good can come out of this situation and smile. I know you are going through a lot but if others see you can smile through all of this, it not only gives them hope but it also does something good for you too.
Katie Clarke was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2011. She underwent a bilateral mastectomy with reconstruction at NorthShore Glenbrook Hospital, followed by four months of chemotherapy and a year-long course of Herceptin treatments at Evanston Hospital.
Before her own diagnosis, and in memory of her best friend who lost her own life to the disease in 2006, Katie and her family would make a point of cheering on the participants of the three-day breast cancer walk in Chicago armed with motivational signs
and licorice. This, and her own breast cancer journey, would later inspire Katie and her sister to found The Licorice Project.
In part one of this two-part series, Katie shares her NorthShore patient story, from her road to diagnosis, to what’s next for her and the passion project born from her experience with breast cancer:
How did your journey to diagnosis begin?
In 2011, at the age of 45, I found a lump in my breast, despite the fact that I had diagnostic mammograms every six months for the previous 1 1/2 years and no family history of the disease. An examination, diagnostic mammogram, ultrasound and biopsy confirmed
How did you feel in the weeks after diagnosis and during treatment? What was hardest? What was surprising?
I felt scared and overwhelmed in the weeks following my diagnosis. There were so many appointments, tests and decisions to make in a short amount of time. During treatment, I felt sick for a couple of days after chemotherapy but then felt fine for
the next two weeks, and even went back to substitute teaching until the next round of chemo. I just did what I was told by the doctors; I kind of felt like I was on autopilot.
I didn't really process my emotions until I was finished with treatment. Then I thought, "What just happened to me?" Once I regained my energy, I had trouble "re-entering" my active and hectic family life. My priorities had changed: I wanted to just relax
and enjoy a slower-paced life with my family.
I would say the hardest times were recovering from surgery and the management of lymphedema. But what surprised me were the silver linings that I encountered, especially all the wonderful people I met along the way.
What brought you to NorthShore for your treatment?
My father, Dr. William Kerr, is a physician at NorthShore. Evanston Hospital has been a part of my family's life forever. I have received all my medical care there.
David Winchester, MD, Surgical Oncologist, was recommended by my OB/GYN’s office. Dr. Winchester and I live in the same community. We know each other personally through our children's sports teams. I never imagined I would become one of his patients. I’m
honored to call him both my doctor and friend.
I felt well cared for by everyone at NorthShore, especially everyone on my care team: Dr. Douglas Merkel (oncologist), Dr. Joseph Feldman (lymphedema), Dr. Kim Grahl (internal medicine), Dr. William Banzhaf (obstetrics and gynecology), Bonnie Ryszka (oncology
nurse), Meg Madvig (Kellogg social worker), Maria Sobel (physical therapy for lympedema massages) and Patricia Piant (acupuncture). The staff at NorthShore is loving, knowledgeable and compassionate. I feel so lucky to have been taken care of by the incredible
staff at NorthShore!
What do you know now that you wish you’d known before/during treatment?
I wish I had been more knowledgeable about the long-term effects of lymphedema. (Editor’s Note:
Lymphedema is a swelling that occurs in arms and legs, but generally only in one limb. It’s caused by a blockage in the lymphatic system, which prevents lymph fluid from draining. Lymphedema can be caused by another condition or a disease that damages lymph
nodes or vessels, like surgery, radiation, cancer and infection.)
What helped you most during treatment?
Family members and friends accompanied me to all of my treatments (17 in total). I chose to use these days as an opportunity to spend unique quality time with friends and family.
Where did the idea for The Licorice Project come from?
Shortly after my treatment began, I started mentoring others and sharing resources and tips that had been helpful to me. It’s so important to connect with others who have “been there, done that” and can help manage expectations. At the same time my
sister, Kendra, was getting involved in the Chicago startup scene. Together, we wondered what we could do to help make the journey less overwhelming for future breast cancer patients and the people who care about them. We searched for a way to use technology
to connect and empower people but to also facilitate offline relationships.
The Licorice Project was our answer.
Our goal is to change the breast cancer experience by connecting people locally, sharing resources, and making it easier to give and receive help. We focus on the practical, social and emotional aspects of having breast cancer, and strive to complement what
the medical community and other cancer organizations are doing.
While participating in our first breast cancer walk, we were touched by those who came out to cheer us on and give us treats—like licorice. That inspired us to begin our own family tradition of handing out licorice to walkers in Chicago as they passed
through our neighborhood. This simple gesture made people feel happy and upbeat and brought a smile to their faces. Our hope is that The Licorice Project will improve the lives of everyone affected by breast cancer and spread a little unexpected joy along
What’s next? For you? For The Licorice Project?
I feel great! I will continue to have my blood work done and see my doctors every three months. I’m passionate about mentoring newly diagnosed patients and honored to serve on the
Oncology Patient Advisory Board at NorthShore Kellogg Cancer Center.
As for The Licorice Project, we are focused on building our local community and the team. Eventually we hope to expand it to numerous locations across the U.S. so we can provide hope and inspiration to as many people as possible.
What advice would you give to newly diagnosed women?
The best advice someone gave me was to take this journey in stages, one step at a time, otherwise it will be too overwhelming. Try to accept help from others—it’s good for you, your family and the people who want to support you.
A mutation found in the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes puts women at an increased risk for developing breast and ovarian cancer. After learning that both her aunt and mother had the BRCA1 mutation,
Sivan Schondorf was tested for the mutation at 24 years old and discovered that she was also positive. She began frequent surveillance for breast and ovarian cancer immediately. At 28, when she felt that surveillance was no longer enough, she
opted to take control of her risk and undergo a preventative, nipple-sparing mastectomy with reconstruction at NorthShore.
With BRCA1 and BRCA2 in the news, she shares her story so that other women know how to find the correct information about their risks and options.
What were your initial thoughts when you learned you tested positive for the BRCA1/BRCA2 gene mutation?
I was sad and worried to learn I had a BRCA 1 mutation, but I was able to push a lot of that fear aside because I was still years away from the recommended surgery time. I was 24 years old at the time.
What prompted you to get tested for this mutation? And then why did you decide to undergo a risk-reducing, nipple-sparing mastectomy with reconstruction.
My maternal aunt had what is now known as a triple negative BRCA1 breast cancer that metastasized and resulted in her passing before she was 50 years old. Our family OBGYN, Dr. Lapata, had good instincts and recommended that she test for the BRCA mutation.
The red flags being that she had a cancer that was premenopausal and aggressive, and that she was of Ashkenazi Jewish descent.
This was in 2000, so it wasn't something any of us had heard of. Once my aunt tested positive for the mutation, my mother found out she had the mutation as well. I was subsequently tested in 2005 and with a positive result, I opted for surveillance. At 24,
I thought I was years away from any possible surgical interventions; however, after only after three years of surveillance, I felt the threat of cancer looming. I realized that surveillance wasn't protecting me; it was only enabling me to discover it at an
early stage. The only way to significantly lower my risk was mastectomy, so I scheduled my surgery for the next year, which was around my 28th birthday.
The nipple-sparing one-step was the best option for me because it required less surgery than having expansion over time. I was also comfortable keeping my nipples because, aside from the more natural, aesthetic result, research shows that keeping one's nipples
is safe as long as the surgery is done preventatively rather than when cancer is present.
How has this decision impacted your life?
In the very short-term, I felt different from my friends because I was thinking about things that women my age don’t normally have to think about. My thoughts were often on my situation. Five years later, as a working mother and wife, I hardly ever
think about it, except at my yearly clinical exam. It's something from my past that I faced head on.
I’m so much more comfortable now that my risk for breast cancer is so much lower. I do still monitor my ovaries at least twice a year. I have not yet pursued surgical intervention because I’m not done having children and do no feel the cost-benefit of beginning
menopause at 31 is worthwhile. I’m looking at having an oopherectomy by age 40.
It’s been a few years since you had this surgery. How are you doing?
I'm great! Having a baby (and now expecting my second) has done far more to change my body than the mastectomy did. I don't regret it for a second. I would do anything to improve my chances of being around to see my children grow. I want to be there
for them as long as I possibly can. Clearly, Angelina Jolie felt the same way, and I’m proud to have been one of her trail blazers!
What advice would give to women who are at an increased risk of developing breast cancer?
Every woman comes to a decision and place of acceptance differently. We all have different perceptions of our bodies and what we can and can't live without. Some have lost mothers due to this mutation and some find out about BRCA unexpectedly, without
even knowing about the elevated risk of cancer in their families.
Each woman must decide what level of risk she can live with. After watching my Aunt Linda die so quickly from this insidious disease, and also having my mother as a role model for me when she had her surgery, I decided that surgery at an early age was right
for me. It doesn't mean its right for everyone.
The most important thing is for women to have the most accurate information, which they can get from genetic counselors and doctors. They should also seek support from the local BRCA community so they can make informed decisions and have the emotional support
that a community can provide. FORCE (Facing our Risk of Cancer Empowered) has provided my family with that support, and we try to give back to our community as much as possible.
Is there any other information you’d like to share?
I filmed my surgery process at NorthShore’s Evanston Hospital and at home in order to help empower other women and to make the experience more meaningful for myself. Because I'm not a filmmaker, I have not yet been able to edit the hours of footage.
Seeing Angelina Jolie come out to the public has reignited my passion to finish this short film, which I hope will help other women.