September 07, 2023

Raising Breast Cancer Awareness with Stories, Support and Sisterhood

Five women walking the Susan G. Komen 3-Day share the remarkable tales of how they met and what it means to them to raise money to end the disease that connects them all. 

Event walkers' feet arranged in a circle

For as large as the breast cancer community is, it sure has a small-town feel sometimes. 
Surprising connections thread throughout a Wisconsin-based team walking the Susan G. Komen 3-Day, a 60-mile weekend walking challenge Sept. 8-10 in downtown Chicago. The event raises money for research, community, care, and action around breast cancer.   
Five women from the team sat down to tell Exact Sciences about their breast cancer experiences, the remarkable tales of how they met, and what it means to them to raise money to end the disease that connects them all.  

Exact Sciences: Please introduce yourselves and tell us what keeps you busy.

Christina Zaleski: I’m a genetic counselor at Exact Sciences’ PreventionGenetics in Marshfield, Wis., and I am a breast cancer survivor. What’s keeping me busy is putting on a lot of miles for training and trying to figure out an anti-blister regimen to protect my toes.

Anna Seydel, MD: I’m Christina’s friend and breast surgeon. I am kept busy by my new granddaughter. She is pure joy.

Terri Lieder: I’m a 16-year breast cancer survivor, and I’m mostly retired and have been busy walking and working on wedding plans for my youngest daughter.

Jocelyn Schroeder: I work at PreventionGenetics with Christina, and I’m currently getting my master’s in public health.

Ashley Inda: I am a breast cancer survivor and patient advocate. I just got the final OK from my surgeon to walk, so I’m training by walking around France and Spain with my kids.

Exact Sciences: You all are connected in some surprising ways.

Christina: I had a cancer scare five years prior to getting breast cancer, and that’s how Anna and I met. She did an excisional biopsy for me. Then we became friends, and she fired me as a patient so that we could be in the same book club and do social things together.

And then five years later, a physician assistant on her breast team diagnosed my breast cancer — this was about 20 months ago.

Ashley: When I was diagnosed, my best friend was like, I bet my former colleague Dr. Seydel would talk to you. I FaceTimed with her while I was getting chemo, and she has been wonderful, like my second or third opinion for everything.

And then I went to a conference last year, and there was an empty seat next to me. Christina sat down and was telling me her story about having breast cancer and doing the Susan G. Komen walk. I told her I knew this surgeon who was walking with one of her patients, can you believe that?

Christina: And I said, I believe it because that patient is me!

Jocelyn: Ashley and I met randomly at the Susan G. Komen Wisconsin advocacy forum last year. 

Christina: I’m also close friends with Terri’s sister Mary, who was going to be on our team last year but couldn’t because she was being treated for fallopian tube cancer. On the last day of last year’s walk, we hurried back to Marshfield because it was Mary’s last chemo day and we wanted to surprise her with a celebration.

When I met Terri and she and I started talking, I was saying how I’m so grateful to the Oncotype technology because without it, I would not have escaped chemotherapy.

(Exact Sciences’ Oncotype DX Breast Recurrence Score® test helps patients with certain types of breast cancer predict whether they will benefit from chemotherapy.)
And then Terri told me her story. It was unbelievable — she was in a clinical trial for Oncotype when that test was being developed. Her courage and what she went through 16 years ago put me in a position today where I didn’t need chemo.

Terri: When I was doing my breast cancer treatment in 2007 and my oncologist asked me if I wanted to participate in a trial for a new test, I’m like, well, that sounds good. I’d like to advance science or whatever.

I had never met anyone who benefited from the clinical trial. It was pretty cool when I met Christina. And my sister was diagnosed with breast cancer about seven months after her prior cancer. Mary’s Oncotype score also means no chemo — yay! It feels great that their treatment plans could be even more fine-tuned because of that trial.

Jocelyn: Christina connects us all. In 2019, she and I were on the wellness committee at work. And during Breast Cancer Awareness Month, Christina asked Dr. Seydel to come give a talk about the importance of screening.

I work in genetics, so my brain defaults to genetics. I have no family history of breast cancer, so I had always kind of been like ohh, mammograms. You hear about how painful they are, and they keep changing the recommendations, and it was just kind of hard to follow, right?

But I’m in the audience listening to Dr. Seydel and learning more about the risk factors, and I was sold. I scheduled my mammogram, and I’ve been regimented about doing that since then.

And I just want to say that I’m super grateful to all of you for being such huge advocates and getting information out there for me, for my daughters, for every woman.

Exact Sciences: That connects nicely to the walk, which is all about support and advocacy.

Christina: When I decided to do this walk after my diagnosis and surgery, I imagined doing it by myself. I needed to do something for me. I needed to get healthier. I needed to turn the negativity of cancer into something positive. In my head, I was ready to do it alone.

Another friend on our team, Heather, started showing up every Friday and bringing me tea and keeping me company. She said, “I’m doing this until you’re in recovery.” When I told her I was going to do this walk, without blinking an eye, she said, “That sounds fun. Let’s lose our toenails together.”

In that moment, I realized that I was never alone in this.

In 2022, our team raised $33,000, and we had 23 walkers. Most of us were one-day walkers, and there were a few three-day walkers like Jocelyn. Afterward, we decided we were going to do this again, and we would do the whole thing. Not only that, let’s be the biggest fundraising team! This year, we have 32 participants, and we’ve raised over $68,000, which makes us the largest team and puts us in the No. 1 spot for fundraising for this event.

We’ve got seven survivors of breast cancer. We’ve got health care providers and genetic counselors. We’ve got one-day walkers and three-day walkers and five crew members. My mom, my sister, my friends — it’s some of my favorite people coming together for such an important cause.

Anna: Last year, Christina called me and said, “I want to do the Susan G. Komen walk, and I want you to be on my team.”

And I was like, I can’t do it. I can’t raise $2,300. But I didn’t say no.

Christina (laughing): Yeah, you said hell no.

Anna (laughing): I said let me think about it.

She said there was a 20-mile option with less fundraising pressure, so I said all right, I’ll do it — I’ll do anything with you.

The back of my shirt last year said that I was a breast surgeon honored to walk with Christi. So many people came up to talk to us about that, saying they wished they could walk with their own surgeons. 

Christina: I was like, yeah, you should be bringing your surgeon. They are fighting for this cause too. We’re all on the same team. And in Anna’s and my case, it’s in more ways than one.

Anna: People’s kindness was an added element that I didn’t count on. Last year’s walk overwhelmed me with its emotion and impact. It was restorative for me.

Jocelyn: When Christina brought up the idea of doing the walk last year, I was so grateful to have an outlet to support her. I couldn’t relate to what she was going through on her cancer journey, so I felt kind of lost as a friend. 

(to Christina, voice breaking) I didn’t know what I could do to support you and express to you how much I care about you.

So when she came up with that, I was like, yes, this is how I can support Christina.

I did the 60 miles last year, and the walk has an amazing atmosphere. People travel all over the country — survivors and supporters, walking to honor those who have survived and those who have been lost — and it’s the happiest sad place to be. So much laughter and dancing; so many tears. But always so much support.

Terri: It’s been more years since my diagnosis, but it’s still so inspirational to meet other survivors and hear their stories. I met one woman who was in her 80s, and she had been diagnosed when she was in her 30s or early 40s. And I’m like, wow, you’re a 40-plus-year survivor. It gave me so much strength and hope.  

Exact Sciences: It seems like storytelling is an important part of all this. 

Ashley: The storytelling part is so powerful. What happened to me is that I found a lump in 2019 and was told after a mammogram that I had dense breast tissue, not breast cancer. 

The thing about dense breast tissue is that it shows up white on a mammogram — the same as cancer. It requires additional testing to find cancer in dense breasts. A few years later, when they finally found my cancer, it was stage 3 and had metastasized.

So I became involved with the Wisconsin Breast Cancer Coalition, which is supporting a bill in the state requiring insurance companies to cover the cost of supplemental screening in women with dense breast tissue. Susan G. Komen has been a big supporter in this area, and we just continue to support one another, to try to make the road easier for other women, with fewer worries.

Christina: That’s why we named our team Hakuna Ma Tatas, after the phrase that translates to “no worries.” We’re in this to end breast cancer and to end the worries around it. Whatever it takes to get there.

Exact Sciences: What are some other hopes surrounding this experience?

Terri: I hope for a world without breast cancer. Until we get there, I hope for it to become less scary and traumatic for the people who face it. 

Christina: My hope is that my daughter never has to stand in front of her future kids to tell them she is fighting a war against breast cancer. As a genetic counselor, I hope that we continue to live our mission as cancer fighters at Exact Sciences. My hope is that we continue to band together to make an impact — and that we don’t stop this fight until breast cancer does.  We need to help identify people with hereditary cancer risk and prevent it altogether. We need to keep moving the needle to help personalize treatment with our advancing technologies and improve lives through genetic testing.  

Anna: I hope for improved quality of life for those who need treatment. I hope for prevention too. I think we’ll have a vaccine. I think that we eventually won’t treat breast cancer with surgery. I think medication will be more precise and preventive, and to get there, it will take the kind of money and awareness that the 3-Day raises.  

The views and opinions expressed are based on each individual’s own experience. 

The Oncotype DX Breast Recurrence Score® test is prescribed by a health care provider and is for individuals with stage I-IIIA hormone receptor-positive (HR+), HER2-negative (HER2-) breast cancer. Not every person will have the same treatment, experience, outcome or result.