Finding Good in the Bad: Kayla Redig Found 100 Reasons to Be Thankful for Breast Cancer

Thursday, October 30, 2014 11:13 AM comments (0)

Kayla Redig celebrated as much as she could during her treatment for breast cancer but some days were harder than others. During a difficult time, a time when she felt like doing anything other than celebrating, she created a list of 100 reasons she was thankful for her cancer diagnosis. It became a way to focus her energy on what was ahead, on the friends and family helping her every step of the way, instead of what was happening right then.

Here, she shares some of her favorite entries from that difficult time:

kayla“Cancer kinda sucks. Everything is harder now than when I was first diagnosed. I’ve been caught in a pity party for a few days now and I figured the best way to get out of it was to stop being sad and start being thankful. But that’s hard because … you know what people with cancer think about all of the time? Cancer. There’s so much more to it than you could ever imagine. Right now the only thing curing my body is also destroying it. That takes a toll but I don’t want to just sit around and watch life happening. I must continue to take part in it all.” 

“When you’re told that you have a disease that could kill you but will definitely impact the rest of your life, you realize how short and unpredictable life really is. I’m trying to take in all the lessons that cancer has to offer me—lessons on growing up, taking care of myself and letting go of the things that hurt me. One of the biggest is finding the good in the bad, no matter how much I don’t want to. But I know it will be good for me.” 

A selection from “100 Reasons I’m Thankful I Was Diagnosed with Cancer”: 

Seeing the strength and love of so many of my friends and family. The outpouring of support has been amazing and it’s really neat to see the goodness of so many people. So many have dropped everything without hesitation to be there for me and, I swear, when I am able to again I will do the same for you. You think you know people and then something happens that changes everything; it’s then that you find out who they really are. For the most part, I am blown away by what I’m finding out.

Connecting with the Chicago Blackhawks. I always thought the boys in red were so far out of reach but I’ve had the pleasure of interacting with them enough now for Mr. Patrick Sharp to pick me out of a sea of fans. Did you catch that? PATRICK SHARP KNOWS THAT I EXIST. It made me feel like I was 14 all over again, like having your hunky crush say hi to you in the hallway. My face went bright red and I giggled like an idiot. 

Learning to speak up for myself. No more letting everyone else run the Kayla show. Being able to vocalize what’s important to me represents huge growth on my part. I know that I have to make myself a priority. “Growing a pair” is a process but it’s happening.

Experiencing old favorites like it’s the first time all over again. Kayaking! No one loves kayaking more than I do. When I was told no oceans or lakes, it was a huge letdown. But with a little rule breaking, I kayaked in the Pacific a week ago and in Lake Michigan a couple days ago. Water is magic. It seduces you. A "quick kayak" easily turns into a “however far I can go before my arms fall off” every time. The only thing that hurt more than my arms was my cheeks from smiling. I appreciate things so much more now.                                                                                                                     

The many nights I woke up yacking only to be given medicine and fed a bite or two of a rice cake by my parents. This might sound like a bad memory but how often do we have the pleasure of falling asleep in our parents’ arms after a certain age? How often do our parents get to hold us in their arms and watch us sleep? There was something special about being cared for like a child again. And I suspect there was something special about getting to parent and care for me in a way I have not needed in years. Maybe they couldn't take away the sick or the pain but they did take away the fear, even if just for a moment. How lucky am I to have such a wonderful family?

mustache dayI have many fun memories from Theme-o but my favorites are the ones that involved other patients. There were a lot of people who popped into my hospital room that day to see if the rumors were true, if Spiderman really was getting pumped full of spidey juice. We loved spreading smiles around the Kellogg Cancer Center. I made a lot of friends and connected with many patients. Plus, I'm always happy to take pictures. 

All of the celebrations! I loved forcing all my friends and family together to celebrate even the simplest occasion. I was desperate for fun. Never feeling alone is how I, we, got through this. Multiple pre-op parties made the whole ordeal feel more relaxed and recovery easier because I’d gotten some fun in before. Celebrating finishing everything was great too! I loved seeing everyone karaoke and dance together. Sometimes I'd start with a room full of strangers and everyone would be friends by the end. Great to see old and new faces and I loved dancing and laughing with you all!  

Getting the phone call that my path results came back clear. It was almost two weeks after my double mastectomy that I got the results back. Hearing that I was completely clear of cancer was just as shocking as finding out I had it. I casually told my parents the news and they were elated and I didn't really react. About 30 minutes later, I was in a ball in my laundry room sobbing my face off for the next two hours. I had become so accustomed to that life that I just assumed that's how it would always be. I never saw a life outside of cancer. This was the first time that I realized life wasn’t taken from me but being given to me.

TLC in the hospital. My medical team grew to be my family. It's an odd thing to miss a hospital but I truly do. The friendly faces and warm hugs from CDH and Evanston Hospital will always feel like home to me. Both locations had people on the ground with me when I crumbled and feeding me cake when I was victorious. My mom recorded me post-surgery this time and I couldn't thank my nurse Rita enough for all the TLC she gave me. I was out of my mind on drugs but I had no problem recognizing the way she made me feel. Have a great doctor? Did a nurse take good care of you? Thank them. They can't hear it enough.

I get to love the way I want to. When you look death in the eye, it makes you change the way you treat others. I have always been a lover, an over-the-top at times, enthusiastic, big-time lover. I have always tried to make sure all of my relationships know their value but I put even more into that now. Since people witnessed what I went through, I think it has made them more accepting and even inviting of this big love. I think they saw me get a second chance at life and are willing to let me live it and share it the way I want to. Love without being told to hold back. That's a gift I cherish.

Allows others to love the way they want to. I think seeing someone you care about fight cancer helps you let your guard down a little with your own feelings too. I’m so much closer with my family and friends now. No one is afraid to say how they feel and every interaction ends with "I love you." My friends and I have become much more affectionate. It's nice to hear, "I love you" and "Ok, one more hug!" No shame in the love fest happening here. 

Reimagine! Cancer welcomed me into another family—my family! The folks in my office are amazing. It's fun to dream dreams with others. It's even better working together to make them come true. Survivorship is a sensitive time that doesn’t get a lot of attention, which makes me want to do all I can to bring’s survivorship curriculum into treatment plans. Every day is spent pouring our energies into helping patients and caregivers take their lives back from cancer. With Reimagine comes a new job title: Professional Cancer Survivor. I’ve met many deserving of this title but none who get to write it on their tax forms. I love getting to apply life experience to my job AND incorporate everyone I love into it. They created a role for me and I'm working to own it.

Puberty 2.0. Puberty is a time when you go through crazy changes, both physical and emotional. You react in ways you can't explain. And then one day you wake up in an unrecognizable body. Most of us cringe at the memories of puberty and most would never want to do it again. Cancer has a lot of similarities.  Chemo screwed with my hormones and Tamoxifen has kept it up. My body has been altered. I've been hit with emotions that left me feeling out of control. In a month, my bandages will be removed and I'll have another new body to figure out. But this time around I'm actually excited. I became so detached from my physical self over the past year in an effort to cope. But now I have a whole new body to get to know/embrace and I'm actually looking forward to doing it. It happened so awkwardly the first time. I'm stoked to embark on an own-your-bod do-over. It's an important part to being a strong woman and healthy human. Fingers crossed for a more graceful transformation this time around.

I can help more people now. My heart breaks when I get a text saying, "My friend was just diagnosed with cancer," because I have an idea of what's in store but I love when the next text asks if they can give out my number for advice. PLEASE GIVE THEM MY NUMBER! PLEASE ASK FOR WAYS TO HELP! Other cancer survivors I meet are little branches of support I cling to. What was the point of fighting if I can't also help other patients or caregivers? Cancer becomes a gift when I have the opportunity to support others. I've racked my pea brain for ways I could directly work to cure cancer but I'm not laboratory material; I am friend material. Cancer peeps are my peeps. I'm in the club for life and happy to contribute however I'm able.

I've always said my dream job would be "Professional Friend." If I can be a source of strength or motivation for others, that's great. More than that, I hope I can be a voice of comfort and safety to those who hear me. Half of friendship is helping someone feel less alone. Maybe if people can relate to my cancer journey, to drowning in stress and emotions, or to not being able to recognize their reflection, they'll feel a little bit of hope. Sometimes strength comes from knowing even one person out there gets it. 

Happy returns. I'm really happy out in California. I feel a strong sense of purpose and thoroughly enjoy my surroundings. It would be easy to stay out here and keep moving in a new direction but even when you're cancer free, you're not free from cancer. I will always have scans and appointments in my future. My medical team happens to consist of a bunch of all-stars that I never plan on leaving. So, even though I love my sunny skies and ocean, I'm thankful to be forever tied to the Chicago-land. I like knowing that no matter where life takes me, I’ll always have one place as a constant. Luckily for me it happens to be home to some of the greatest people I've ever known. I'll keep coming back to you guys for as long as you'll let me.

New people. Lovely people were a part of my life before cancer and would have continued to be without it, but, that being said, I'm not sure that I would have had the privilege of sneaking onto the Skinner family's radar without it. I don't know that I would have spent a week in Nicaragua and met my favorite Caitie who introduced me to roommates that I know will be lifelong friends. Given the option I wouldn't choose life as a cancer patient but I definitely would never change it. Some people can make anything seem worthwhile.

I'm thankful cancer happened because it provided me with opportunities to grow and better myself and it gave me a fresh start on life. The world is more beautiful and everyone is precious. Second chances are a luxury. I have a better understanding of what I almost lost and I'm not going to waste this gift.



Dr. Catherine Pesce, Breast Cancer Surgeon: Motivated by Her Mother, Inspired by Her Patients

Tuesday, October 28, 2014 3:13 PM comments (0)

dr pesce

Catherine Pesce, MD, Surgical Oncology, discovered her passion for surgery as a pre-med major in college. It was during her second year as a surgical resident, sadly after her mother died of colon cancer, that she knew where her heart would take her: surgical oncology.

Here, she tells us why she was drawn to specializing in breast cancer and describes the personal impact her patients have on her:

(Click on Dr. Pesce's image to listen to her interview on NorthShore Health & Wellness.)

When did your interest in medicine develop? 
In school, math and science always came easiest to me. So, as a student at Duke University, I took a chance and enrolled in pre-med. My sophomore year, Duke offered a program for pre-med students that gave them the opportunity to shadow any kind of physician, so, randomly, I chose cardiothoracic surgery. What an opportunity to watch heart surgery every Friday!

After ten minutes in the operating room, I was hooked. That was in that moment that I absolutely fell in love with surgery. I just couldn’t get over the fact that surgeries like that happen every day, and I knew that my passion for surgery would only grow over time.

What led you to surgical oncology, specifically breast cancer?
During my general surgery residency, I was exposed to every surgical specialty in order to figure out what felt “right” for me as a future surgeon. But it was during my second year in residency that my mother died of colon cancer; and I knew from that point on, my heart was in oncology.

As I was exposed to the many different operations we completed for various types of cancer, I was naturally drawn to breast cancer patients. As a woman, I felt an innate ability to relate to other women. More than anything, however, I felt so rewarded by the huge impact I could have on a breast cancer patient’s life. When breast cancer is caught early, it’s easily treatable and regularly curable. There is nothing more rewarding than being involved in that process. Having a patient beat the disease and move on with her life, which, unfortunately, is not always the case with other types of cancers, is truly what brings me the most joy as a physician.

What is the biggest challenge of working in surgical oncology?
Unfortunately, in my line of work I have to share bad news nearly every day. While no woman wants to hear she has breast cancer, I make it my priority to comfort, encourage and clearly communicate our plan to fight the disease so we can work together. 

What do you find most inspiring about your patients?
I have been blown away by the grace and humility patients exude during their cancer treatment. More than once, I’ve actually had a patient say, “I’m glad this happened. It has made me re-evaluate my life; realize what’s important, how loved I am and how important it is to take care of myself.” It brings me to tears witnessing such strength and dignity.

What’s new now that many women might not know as far as treatment and surgery for breast cancer?
I am most excited about a new surgical procedure we have recently adopted at NorthShore to remove breast tumors. When a cancer is discovered from a patient’s mammogram and cannot be felt with the human hand, traditionally, a wire is placed into the breast by a radiologist and then, in the operating room, the wire is used by the surgeon to guide where the tumor to be excised is located in the breast. The wire method has many disadvantages, including patient satisfaction; the possibility of wire displacement; long procedure times on the day of surgery; as well as wire inaccuracy that sometimes requires a surgeon perform multiple surgeries in order to properly remove the tumor.

Recently, we have begun using radioactive seeds to locate cancers instead of wires. The seeds are implanted into the breast cancer with no radioactivity risk to the patient. The seeds can be inserted by the radiologist up to five days before surgery, which eliminates the logistical challenges between the radiology department and operating room schedules.

In the operating room, the surgeon uses a handheld gamma probe to guide excision of the tumor and seed in an easier, more precise manner. Already, prospective clinical trials have shown a decrease in the need for multiple operations compared to the wire localization method. In addition, no other hospital in the state of Illinois currently offers the use of radioactive seeds. NorthShore is a pioneer and standout in the use of this advanced technological surgical technique.

What makes the NorthShore Kellogg Cancer Center unique?
The treatment of breast cancer requires a multidisciplinary approach, and the Kellogg Cancer Center has a system in place to accomplish exactly that. We can collaboratively walk each patient step-by-step through the process. From a patient’s first abnormal mammogram and biopsy to surgery, consultations with medical oncology, radiation oncology and survivorship, the Kellogg Cancer Center has an experienced, collaborative team of specialists who provides a comprehensive and compassionate approach to breast cancer treatment for every patient.

What advice would you give women newly diagnosed with breast cancer?
I want newly diagnosed women to know that they are not alone. While this journey will have its ups and downs, they have a team of doctors who are there for them every step of the way.


Fueled by Love: Kayla Redig Finds a Way to Celebrate During Treatment for Breast Cancer

Wednesday, October 08, 2014 1:08 PM comments (0)

kaylaCancer runs in her family but at only 24, Kayla Redig’s family and doctors weren’t ready to believe that cancer could be responsible for her sleepless nights, exhaustion and days of just “feeling off.” Kayla, however, knew there was something wrong. After finding a lump in her breast, she pushed for further testing. When the diagnosis came back as breast cancer, she was upset but not surprised.

From the beginning, Kayla told her family that she didn’t want to hate the chemo treatments that would be responsible for saving her life, so she decided to celebrate them instead. For Kayla and her friends and family, chemo became Theme-o, themed parties and celebrations surrounding each treatment. Fittingly, superheroes came first, followed by a prom-themed chemo session and even a Blackhawks-themed parade on the way to her final treatment. Everyone dressed up and everyone celebrated.

Here, Kayla tells us why she found it so important to celebrate during breast cancer treatment and how the love she felt during treatment gave her the strength to fight cancer and embrace a new direction in life:

Where did your journey to diagnosis begin?
Cancer runs in my family. A year before I was diagnosed, I had genetic testing done and found out I had the BRCA 2 gene. So I knew I had a genetic disposition and a family history of it but I never gave it much thought. A few weeks before my diagnosis, I was always complaining about how tired I felt. My friends noticed how “off” I was and thought I was depressed. I wasn’t sleeping through the night because I had intense night sweats; I figured that my lack of sleep was to blame for my tiredness. About two weeks after that, I found a lump in my left breast. 

You were only 24 when you sought out a doctor’s advice. What were you being told by family, friends and doctors before you received your diagnosis?
When I found the lump I called my mom and two of my friends but no one was worried. One even called me dramatic and told me to go to sleep. The more friends I told the more I heard, “Get it checked out but I’m sure it’s nothing.” 

When I first saw my gynecologist she was hesitant to prescribe further testing because of my age but decided to move forward because of my family history. When I had the ultrasound done, they were able to rule out a cyst but, again, they hesitated before doing a mammogram because of my age. About a minute into my mammogram the tech said, “You need to see one of our breast surgeons immediately.” First thing the next morning, I was with Dr. Katherine Yao having a biopsy. She was the first person who didn’t shuffle me along. Instead, she said, “I’ll be honest with you—this looks and feels a lot like cancer to me.”

 and her momWhat went through your head when you were told it was breast cancer after all?
If you’re in touch with your body, I think you just know when something is wrong. So that combined with how off I’d been feeling … I can’t really say I was surprised. Tears fell immediately but I wasn’t surprised. I remember being driven to where my parents were and talking to Dr.Yao on the phone, hearing more information and what to expect. When I finally got to my parents, I burst into tears all over again. It wasn’t until I heard my mom say that they were going to move back to Illinois right away that the reality of the situation really hit me. You have to move across the country for me? Whoa. And seeing my father break down in tears … I started seeing the impact my health was having on others and all I could think about was the damage this disease was causing. 

But you wanted to try to keep positive, so where did the idea for Theme-o come from?
After I reached the halfway point with chemo, my health really started to deteriorate. My body was worn out. I was an emotional mess and my spirit was in a bad place. From day one, I had said that I never wanted to hate chemo because chemo was my partner in the fight. But suddenly I was dreading each treatment and I wanted to stop going. I wanted to stop fighting. With what little energy I had left, I realized I had two choices: Give up or make a drastic change. 

Up until then, all of my treatments had involved at least six friends or family members spending time with me but that was just talking. I decided I needed to make my treatments into parties and, like all good parties, they had to have themes. Chemo became Theme-o. It was during the darkest time in my life that Theme-o was born. 

How did you decide on themes?
I shared the idea with my friends and family and told them to start throwing themes at me. We formed a solid list from that. My father insisted that “Superheroes” be the first theme because he had seen a Superman costume with built-in muscles and wanted to wear it. Before each treatment, we would have the next theme decided. 

What were the reactions from people at your appointments?
When we showed up at the hospital dressed as superheroes everyone was amused but also quite confused. There were many “okay … why?” looks thrown our way before we explained the situation. A lot of people poked their heads in my room because they had to see for themselves. We took pictures with other patients; it was fun to see them light up when they saw us. Once people heard what we were doing, the next question was always: “What are you wearing next week?” 

It was amazing to see the community that formed around Theme-o. My whole school participated, many folks at the hospital and friends and family from all over the world dressed up to show their support. I don’t think many people look forward to chemo but I sure grew to. We had a lot of fun with it!

blackhawksWhat surprised you most about the entire journey, from diagnosis and now to recovery?
The whole experience was a lesson of the power of love. It’s amazing what people can accomplish when we all work together and are fueled by love. From my family to complete strangers, I had everyone rallying alongside me. This has been the most challenging path I’ve ever found myself on but I was able to see it through because of all of the love I was given. I never felt like I was doing it alone. The beautiful thing about the strength of love is it shows no sign of running out. I am still fueled by love every day.

What did you find most challenging about the experience?
The most challenging thing for me was how my family and others I love were/are still affected by this. I hated seeing them suffer because of my suffering.  I hate thinking of all the tears that were shed on my behalf. A lot of lives were changed because of this. 

What advice would you give to other women facing a breast cancer diagnosis?
Find ways to celebrate yourself. Your body is being dragged through the gutter and will undergo a ton of changes in a very short period of time. I created a “Pretty Committee” that was in charge of making sure I still felt beautiful and feminine throughout. Get a makeover, take a Look Good, Feel Better class, buy something sparkly—you’re still beautiful and you’re still you. Little earrings and cute pajama bottoms can go a long way. 

Along with celebrating you, celebrate everything else too. Every little benchmark you hit or appointment you get through is worth celebrating. We had a Christmas in July party to celebrate finishing my first round of chemo and a big dinner at the halfway point. I had a pre-op party and a post-radiation blow out. No matter how small or silly it may seem, celebrate it! Make a big deal out of every moment you get through. People will be happy to join you. If you can’t find joy, create it.

What’s next? What’s happening now? What do you hope to achieve?
I just had my final reconstruction surgery at the end of September and it feels amazing knowing I don’t have more surgeries looming. Before surgery I took a new job with a company based in Los Angeles called Reimagine and am so excited to resume work with them once I have recovered. Reimagine offers an evidence-based, online live class that helps patients and caregivers take their lives back from cancer. They have built an entire community of support to help people thrive in the face of adversity. I knew early on that I wanted to surround myself with other patients and survivors and change the experience of cancer for every life it touches. It’s incredible to have found others who wake up every morning wanting to do the same. I’m very blessed to have a career that is fueled not only by life experience but also love. Every bit of love I’m given I try to pour back into the community of survivors, fighters and caregivers.

For more information on Reimagine, click here


Breast Cancer Screening Guidelines

Friday, February 14, 2014 11:22 AM comments (0)


The update to a report first published 25 years ago in the British Medical Journal continues to raise important questions about the value of mammography; however, it must be considered in the context of other randomized trials that confirm a significant reduction of breast cancer mortality in women who regularly undergo screening mammograms. This report shows, as it did previously, an improvement in survival rates for women who had their breast cancer detected via mammogram before clinical signs of cancer had become apparent. 

As screening technology continues to evolve, screening guidelines may be modified.  At present, there is convincing data that women should have annual screening mammograms beginning at 40, as suggested by the American Cancer Society’s guidelines. Those with a strong family history or a genetic predisposition may begin screening earlier after consultation with their physician.

For more information on mammography services and locations at NorthShore, please visit


Finding the Strength to Smile: Krissy Posey's Breast Cancer Diagnosis at Twenty-Eight

Tuesday, October 22, 2013 9:00 AM comments (0)

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.



One Step at a Time: Katie Clarke’s Journey from Patient to Breast Cancer Mentor

Tuesday, October 15, 2013 2:47 PM comments (0)

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:

Katie ClarkeHow 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 the diagnosis. 

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.)

Katie Clarke 2What 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. 

Why Licorice? 
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 the way.

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.


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