BLOOMINGTON — When Cory Kreitzer was diagnosed with stage 4 metastatic breast cancer at age 37, she "cried for days."
"I was devastated," the Normal woman said. "I thought my life was over ... I thought about not being there for my kids."
Metastatic breast cancer is cancer that has spread to other parts of the body. It is responsible for nearly all of the nation's 40,000 annual breast cancer deaths.
Getting a diagnosis of stage 4 breast cancer is awful. Getting it when you are less than 40 years old and in the middle of when society expects you to be rearing children, achieving new heights in your career and remaining healthy can be devastating.
But four Central Illinois women who have stage 4 metastatic breast cancer and are under 40 years old have several messages:
- Stage 4 is not an automatic death sentence;
- Treatment never ends but life goes on; and
- More breast cancer research money should be dedicated specifically to metastatic breast cancer.
The four women are Kreitzer, now 39; Allie Ruff, 30, of rural Flanagan; Jamie Wood, 37, of Bloomington; and Katie Bertsche, 34, of Bloomington. They spoke with The Pantagraph recently at Ivy Lane bakery in downtown Bloomington.
"Being under 40 with stage 4 is hard," Ruff admitted. "When people hear stage 4, they think you're dying. They don't know how to treat you."
"We end up having to comfort other people," Kreitzer said.
"We all know people who have died from this disease," Wood said. "But we're focusing on living."
"Treatment for metastatic breast cancer never ends," added Wood. "I'll most likely be on some sort of medication or in treatment for the rest of my life."
"They are starting to treat it like more of a chronic disease," Ruff said. "There's no cure, but I hope they can keep me alive until there is a cure."
That's why the women want more research dollars dedicated to stage 4 breast cancer. "Less than 10 percent of the money for breast cancer research is dedicated toward metastatic," Bertsche said.
Meanwhile, "My doctor said 'Go out and live your life,'" Kreitzer said.
"People say how good we look. Put us in a crowd and people wouldn't know that we have stage 4 breast cancer," Ruff said.
But when people find out, the worst thing the young women have heard is, "You'll be fine."
"We won't be, but we've come to terms with that," Kreitzer responded. "I would prefer to answer questions about it."
"I'm proud to let people know that there are people like us," Bertsche said.
"We want to be a voice for people with stage 4," Ruff said.
Kreitzer — whose children are ages 14, 10 and 4 — began to experience fatigue and weight gain about three years ago.
In summer 2015, she felt a mass in her lower left breast. She had a mammogram, then a biopsy and was diagnosed with breast cancer on Aug. 19.
A follow-up scan revealed the cancer had metastasized into her femur, ribs, hips, pelvic bone and scapula.
"I didn't know what to do or where to turn. But (oncologist) Dr. (John) Migas reassured me that there were options. It wasn't curable, but treatable. He said, 'We'll throw everything at it.'"
"My breast cancer is hormone-positive and we were done having kids, so I had a hysterectomy in November 2015," Kreitzer said. Then she began taking an oral chemotherapy pill. Side effects included fatigue, foot pain and heart burn.
A follow-up scan in August 2016 revealed that the lesions on her bones were gone.
"I was thrilled," Kreitzer said. "But it's a cautious celebration when there's no evidence of active disease because you know it could come back at any time."
Her most recent scan in September continued to show no evidence of disease. "Dr. Migas says it's complete remission," she said.
Following mastectomy, Kreitzer's breast reconstruction surgery was complicated. But she has returned to work at State Farm, where she is a business analyst.
"I'm tired," she said. "That's a side effect of the medicines. Even though we may look fine, we are hiding a lot. We hide the side effects for the sake of others."
Bertsche was 28 when she detected a lump in her right breast when doing a breast self exam. She was diagnosed with stage 3 breast cancer, meaning the cancer had spread beyond the breast.
She had chemotherapy, bilateral mastectomy in February 2012 and breast reconstruction. Subsequent radiation therapy to reduce the risk of recurrence ruined her right breast implant.
It was at that time that her husband, Ryan, died unexpectedly of heart disease.
She had her second breast reconstruction in May 2013.
In 2015, the cancer had spread to bones in her back and hip. Her cancer was now stage 4.
"My cancer is hormone-fed so I decided to have a hysterectomy (in November 2015)," Bertsche said.
She didn't know whether she would meet someone else and they would try to have a family, but she decided at age 32 that "it wasn't worth holding onto something that might not ever happen."
"I made the decision and I don't regret it."
She began to cry.
"I'm young and I'm widowed. I would like to find someone some day. But I wouldn't enjoy telling him "I have cancer and I can't give you any kids.'"
"So at age 32, I'm in full-blown menopause," she said with a smile. "I'm having hot flashes every day, all day. Sometimes, people come up to me and ask, 'Are you sick?' And I'll say, "I'm sick but it's not what you think.'"
"I have scans every six months," said Bertsche, spa manager and front office assistant at Twin City Plastic Surgery. "Some of the lesions are smaller. Some are still there.
"You live scan to scan. I'm on five different medicines but, now, I'm just trying to live life."
Wood discovered a lump in her left breast during a self exam on Dec. 23, 2014, had a mammogram, ultrasound and biopsy and was told that it was a malignant tumor on Jan. 6, 2015. She had chemotherapy and a lumpectomy, but when some cancer remained, she had both breasts removed on July 20, 2015.
in late August 2015, she detected a lump in her left armpit and on Sept. 23, on her 35th birthday, she found out that the cancer had spread to her bones, meaning it was stage 4.
She had more chemotherapy. Follow-up PET (positron emission tomography) scans reveals no evidence of disease.
"I know what this means: there's no evidence of disease — for now."
Wood had radiation in early 2016, returned to work at Illinois State University in August 2016, had reconstruction surgery in October 2016 and had a hysterectomy in June 2017.
"I had a scan in May and it continues to show no evidence of disease. My next scan is in November. If I could, I would get one every single day because the waiting is the worst."
She said her husband, Jason, and their two daughters, ages 3 and 4, are three reasons that she keeps going.
Ruff found a lump in her left breast while doing a breast self exam. After a mammogram, ultrasound, biopsy and further testing, she was diagnosed with breast cancer on Nov. 1, 2012. She was 25 years old.
She had stage two breast cancer because it had broken through the wall of the milk ducts in the breasts. She had a mastectomy of her left breast later that month.
Allie and her husband Dave wanted to have a child, but also knew she was at increased risk of infertility after chemotherapy. So several of her eggs were surgically removed, combined with Dave's sperm to create embryo, which were frozen.
Chemotherapy and radiation followed and she had breast reconstruction in 2014.
Ruff began taking Lupron to reduce her amount of estrogen in an effort to cut the odds of cancer recurrence. But Lupron shouldn't be used by someone pregnant or breastfeeding because it can cause birth defects. The Ruffs concluded that surrogacy would be the best option when a co-worker at OSF HealthCare in Pontiac, Josie Wiles, agreed to be Ruff's surrogate.
An embryo was inserted into Wiles' uterus on Dec. 15, 2015, and Ava Jo was born on Aug. 26, 2016.
In February 2017, doctors discovered that the cancer had metastasized to Ruff's liver. On June 22, she had a partial liver resection to remove the area of the liver affected by the cancer and takes an oral chemotherapy.
"I will be as aggressive as I need to be to fight to be here to raise my daughter," Ruff said.
"As the newest one (of the four women) to be stage 4, being with them gives me hope," Ruff said. "They are inspiring."