CURE’s Metastatic Breast Cancer Heroes™ Award Program expresses gratitude to the heroes who impact the lives of patients with metastatic breast cancer.
Two patient advocates, a registered nurse and an oncologist were honored during the inaugural CURE® Metastatic Breast Cancer Heroes™ awards program, which honors people who have made contributions in the field of metastatic breast cancer.
In particular, CURE Media Group recognized Dian ‘CJ’ Corneliussen; Dr. Bhuvaneswari Ramaswamy; and Brandi Riber, RN, all of whom were nominated by their peers and family members for the inaugural event, which was sponsored by Lilly Oncology. The award ceremony also recognized Stephanie Walker as its Metastatic Breast Cancer Diversity and Inclusion Hero. The four awards were given on Dec. 6, during a virtual celebration held in conjunction with the San Antonio Breast Cancer Symposium.
Essays were submitted by colleagues, patients and family members that identified Corneliussen, Ramaswamy, Riber, Walker and nearly 30 other Metastatic Breast Cancer Heroes™ nominees, all detailing noble acts of patients, physicians, caregivers and others involved in the metastatic breast cancer community. Some examples include a patient who raised awareness and funding for stage 4 breast cancer research by swimming in lakes; a caregiver who was motivated to start a breast cancer platform to inform others about the disease and a physician who also led several clinical trials for new treatments for breast cancer brain metastases.
“Thank you for joining us in celebrating and expressing gratitude to four honorees who have made a difference in the lives of those affected by metastatic breast cancer and continue to bring hope and healing to patients and their loved ones,” said Kristie L. Kahl, vice president of content at MJH Life Sciences, parent company of CURE®, during the ceremony. “Together, as one community, we can raise awareness of metastatic breast cancer and, most importantly, recognize and celebrate the esteemed individuals contributing to improving the lives of patients, our metastatic breast cancer heroes.”
‘The Magic of Life’
The keynote speaker for the event was Amy Robach, journalist, television reporter, co-host and The New York Times best-selling author who was diagnosed with stage 2 invasive breast cancer in 2013 after undergoing a mammogram live on “Good Morning America” at 40 years old. Robach was originally hesitant about the mammogram because of her age and the fact that she did not have a family history of the disease nor an increased risk for breast cancer. After her diagnosis, she underwent a double mastectomy and eight rounds of chemotherapy for the next six months, although she says it took her two years to fully recover emotionally, physically and mentally from her diagnosis and treatment.
Robach has since been an advocate for early detection and screening for breast cancer, and the importance of returning to a somewhat-normal life after treatment. She also aims to share the lessons she has learned throughout her cancer journey.
“No one knows what next week brings, next month, next year brings,” Robach said. “When you are living with cancer, you are acutely aware of that. And with that, I have lived better. … I have been vulnerable in a way that I would never have been willing to be because you know that time is precious, and yet we say it, and we hear people talk about it, but until you’ve actually had to walk that walk and live with that reality of knowing that no one is guaranteed tomorrow, you don’t really get to experience some of the magic of life. And that has been the greatest gift. And I know (for) a lot of people, this is a gift we would be happy to give back, but I will say I truly believe it is not how long we live; it is how we life.”
During her keynote speech, Robach also recognized the heroes honored at the awards ceremony and the value of what they do daily.
“I just want to say that I am just honored for all of the people who are being honored tonight,” she said. “My hat's off to you, our true heroes. And thank you for your time. Thank you for listening to me. Just know that you've got this and we are rooting for you every day. We are praying for you. We are sending you love, (and) you're sending us strength.”
Advocating for Patients to Be Seen in Health Care
CURE® selected its first ever Metastatic Breast Cancer Diversity and Inclusion Hero. This special achievement is awarded to one recipient who has made an impact in breaking down systemic barriers, created solutions that resulted in health equity or contributed to ending the disparities in the metastatic breast cancer community.
Stephanie Walker, who has stage 4 metastatic breast cancer, was nominated by her husband, John Walker. During the ceremony, he recognized that where they live in North Carolina is “the lost area when it comes to health care.” Despite this fact, Walker continues to advocate for patients, especially Black patients who often experience inequities in health care.
“Instead of being a victim of cancer, she has been an enemy of cancer and working to try to make sure people are educated, understand and have access,” John said. “She can’t work anymore because of the cancer, so she created a job, and that job is that she advocates. She’s on the phone every day. She’s on the computer every day. And whether it’s Susan Komen or the MBC Alliance, whatever the program, she’s making sure that everyone has the same opportunity.”
Not only is Stephanie an advocate for metastatic breast cancer, but she was also a critical care nurse for 40 years. As she was immersed in health care, Stephanie did not recognize the disparities in health care right away. Since she recognized the barriers in care, she has been an advocate for not only herself but for other patients.
“I continued to work as a hospice nurse up until 2018. That is when I actually found the world of advocacy, realized that there are a lot of things out there that I should be fighting for, and started to fight to get equal care,” Stephanie said. “Then when we relocated back to eastern North Carolina, I realized how the standard of care isn’t even provided to women of color, especially Black men and women. That’s where my battle lies, in rural health, trying to educate women and men on breast health and trying to get them to understand or to empower them with the knowledge of breast health and health care when they are diagnosed with a terminal disease such as metastatic breast cancer.”
Creating Support in a Limited Space
CURE®’s first Metastatic Breast Cancer Hero™ is Dian ‘CJ’ Corneliussen, who is founder, director emeritus and past president of METAvivor and retired US Air Force Civil Service intelligence officer. She was diagnosed with stage 2 breast cancer in 2004, which then metastasized to her lung in late 2006. After she was diagnosed, Corneliussen launched a peer-to-peer support program that grew from 24 members in one group to 100 groups nationwide.
Corneliussen was nominated by Bronwyn Belling, a patient advocate for METAvivor, who has benefitted from the support group since her own diagnosis three-and-a-half years ago.
“I'm just very proud to honor and so happy that CJ is being recognized in her work,” Belling said during the ceremony. “She's done so much for so long. I really applaud and celebrate her fierce passion for this work, and her unerring talents and energy that really has not flagged. And she's really been a fierce advocate and champion for all of us in the (metastatic breast cancer) community.”
The forming of METAvivor, let alone the participation in a support group, came against the advice of her cancer team.
“I found (my diagnosis) an incredibly isolating disease. I was told to stay away from breast cancer support groups, not (to) enter the breast cancer center because knowledge of my condition would frighten the other patients,” Corneliussen said. “That was very new to me. It had been very different when I had primary breast cancer. What I did was I began looking for other patients so I could help with their support so we could get together. We could get together for walks, for lunch, for dinner, just try to enjoy yourself and offer each other support, talk about the drugs we were taking, how we dealt with side effects, how we dealt with strange comments from people, all these different things.”
Living Well With the Disease
CURE Media Group also recognized Dr. Bhuvaneswari Ramaswamy of The Ohio State University College of Medicine, who is a founder of the Living Well With Advanced Breast Cancer Clinic, which is specifically designed for patients with newly diagnosed metastatic breast cancer. She is also a breast cancer survivor herself.
Ramaswamy was nominated by her colleague, Dr. Claire Verschraegen, division chief of medical oncology at The Ohio State University Comprehensive Cancer Center, who is impressed with Ramaswamy’s energy towards her breast cancer section despite having the disease herself.
“Dr. Ramaswamy is a brilliant, compassionate doctor. I am so proud that she was selected for this award,” Verschraegen said during the ceremony. “Bhuvaneswari, I'm so happy that you are one of my colleagues at The Ohio State (University College of Medicine). I am really impressed by how much you have done for breast cancer and for the faculty treating breast cancer and for all the patients suffering from breast cancer. Lots of things could not have happened without you.”
Ramaswamy showed gratitude to her patients, who helped her be a better physician and allowed her to navigate her own cancer journey.
“My patients inspire me to live well with this disease,” Ramaswamy said. “I hope I continue to inspire them to live well with this disease and fight for more treatments, fight for more opportunity, fight for more resources and have a space to discuss these issues where you have to learn to live with cancer. … I'm so grateful for this group to be able to recognize that, recognize metastatic breast cancer patients, recognize the challenges they face and help to put this in the limelight. … And I'm grateful for every patient that I touch for how they inspire me every day.”
‘She Is the Storm’
Another Metastatic Breast Cancer Hero™ honored at the award ceremony was Brandi Riber, RN, a nurse for patients with cancer at Florida Cancer Specialists and a patient with metastatic breast cancer. Riber was originally diagnosed with breast cancer in 2010, which became metastatic in 2014.
Riber was nominated by two loved ones including a family friend of 40 years, Karen Poland. Poland noted how Riber helped her husband throughout his pancreatic cancer journey, even from 1,200 miles away.
“(My husband, Kenny,) tried clinical trials, and, unfortunately, he did have four-and-a-half good years,” Poland said. “Brandi was always a source of encouragement for Kenny, of support for Kenny. She always had tips for him when he was going through treatments, going through chemo, what to look for or how to react to certain things. (She was) always there, always a caregiver, always the nurse (side to her) kicked in. I just love the family. I wanted her to experience the honor for the hero that I feel she is.”
Terry Dalton, Riber’s mother, also nominated her, with recognition that goes beyond her nursing at the same center for 17 years.
“Brandi's story is, of course, about being a nurse and how much she helps people,” Dalton said at the ceremony. “This girl, until recently, never missed a day of work. It is her reason to get up every day when it would be easier just to lay on the couch and have a moment. She knows that Mr. So-and-So or Ms. So-and-So is waiting for her. She's a preferred nurse. She prefers to help everyone. So she will be there when putting herself aside.”
Lately, Riber has had to put the focus on caring for herself, although that has not stopped her from caring for others.
“Now, we are out of clinical trials and we are trying something different and back to regular chemo,” Dalton said. “No one knows. But every day, she's up, she's fighting, she puts on her scrubs. She goes, she stays as long as she can at work. She gets her daughter from school and life goes on. I think that this is just a story of hope, a hope for a nurse to help others, but this nurse is helping herself. Of course, this is Brandi; if you knew her, you would know she's actually stronger than whatever you can ever imagine. She's not afraid of the storm, she is the storm. I'm extremely proud of her. I love her more than anything.”
Riber is one to consider her patients her family, as she has formed numerous relationships throughout her career. Despite this closeness, many patients were not aware of Riber’s own cancer journey until the summer of 2021, when treatment has led her to lose weight and her hair, in addition to missing some days from work.
“I will never be able to thank people like Karen and my mom because it's not just me that makes me a hero,” Riber said. “These people pull me along and drag me through daily. They have no idea how much it helps my soul and gets (me) through every single day because of people standing and holding me up. Not every day is easy, but every day do I smile through it. There are days when I'm pretty ugly, but the next day is a new day and this too shall pass. I just have to believe. There is no giving up. I have a 14-year-old daughter that I expect to see graduate, grandkids, good times. I didn't walk this field of mines for nothing, and I will continue to fight.”
Erik Lohrmann, vice president of CURE Media Group, thanked the heroes honored at this event.
“Whether through research and development, patient advocacy or patient care, you’ve each uniquely contributed to improving the lives of (metastatic breast cancer) patients,” he said. “Your accomplishments and tireless devotion exemplify what our Heroes award represents, so thank you.”
Dr. Stacy Moulder, senior medical director at Lilly Oncology, also acknowledged the efforts made by heroes at this event and throughout the community.
“Through podcasts, webinars and much more, CURE® is shining an essential light on life with metastatic breast cancer as told by people living with the disease and experts who help make their lives better,” Moulder said. “This is a proud and humbling experience for me and my coworkers. Many of us have been touched by cancer as a patient, caregiver, relative, ally or friend. Those hero stories motivate us further to bring positive change to the daily lives of people impacted by metastatic breast cancer.”
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