When Emmy Rickert was diagnosed with breast cancer at the age of 24, she faced one big fear.
“I was scared of not being the thing I wanted to be more than anything else in the world—a mom,” she said.
Four years later, her two children were in the front row as their mom told her survival story Wednesday night at the fifth annual Candid Conversations event sponsored by Spectrum Health Cancer Center and Betty Ford Breast Care Services. Her daughter, Grace, 2, and her son, Huck, 11 months, sat with her husband, Kelly, and father, Kevin Pontz.
“Cancer can take away many pieces of my body, but I refused to let it take away my dream of becoming a mother,” she told the crowd at East Kentwood High School’s Fine Arts Auditorium.
Rickert shared her story of being diagnosed with triple negative breast cancer, the most aggressive form of breast cancer, in 2013, just two weeks after losing her Aunt Jodi to breast cancer. She sat at her desk at work after her aunt’s funeral and noticed a bruised area on her chest. She later found a lump in her left breast.
Rickert visited her OB-GYN, who assured her that at her age, it was highly unlikely it was breast cancer and she should check back in a month. But Rickert, with the memory of her Aunt Jodi still close, insisted on having an ultrasound. A few days later, the radiologist called with the results.
“I persisted. I was my own health advocate, which I hope every one of you can do if you’re in my situation,” she said.
Later she would have a mastectomy and chemotherapy treatment, but not before seeing a fertility specialist and freezing her eggs.
“One of the best ways we can fight cancer is to love life, to choose joy, every day,” Rickert said. “My children will never know the depth of joy they bring me every day.”
Joining Rickert at the event was Susan Ford Bales, First Lady Betty Ford’s daughter and an advocate for breast cancer awareness. The Candid Conversations event is inspired by her mother’s openness about the disease when she was diagnosed in 1974.
Bales vividly remembers the moment her mother took her aside in their home at the time, the White House, and said four words: “I have breast cancer.”
Betty Ford would later tell the entire world those four words, changing the course of women’s health forever, Bales said.
Bales reminded the audience that, each day, 700 women are diagnosed with breast cancer and 173 women die from the disease.
“Ladies and gentlemen, we have more work to do, much more work to do,” she said.
The Candid Conversations event furthered this work of education and awareness with a panel discussion moderated by Judy Smith, MD, chief of the Spectrum Health Cancer Center. The panel included Judith Hiemenga, MD, of Spectrum Health Cancer Genetics; Diana Bitner, MD, of Spectrum Health Fertility and Cancer Menopause; Paul Wright, MD, of Spectrum Health Surgical Oncology; and Shannon Wilson, executive director of Grand Rapids African American Health Institute.
The panel tackled questions about family history and genetics, breast density and 3D mammography, fertility and menopause after chemotherapy, early detection in the African American population, and prophylactic bilateral mastectomy.
It’s education like this that keeps breast cancer survivor Sharon M. Aalderink coming back to the event every year.
“I come to pack in any more information I can,” said Aalderink as she chatted with Dr. Bitner before the event. “I really am trying to give back to the community.”
Aalderink, a 13-year breast cancer survivor, volunteers as a breast cancer mentor at Gilda’s Club of Grand Rapids. She also donates her hair to children with hair loss as a result of cancer treatment.
Aalderink’s doctor found a lump in her breast during a routine exam, just days after a mammogram that did not detect her cancer. Within the week, she had a lumpectomy and immediately returned to her job as a teacher.
“I was not going to let cancer identify me,” she said.
Aalderink was one of many breast cancer survivors attending the event, which also featured women’s health care information booths and entertainment from Avalon Cutts-Jones Music. Grand Rapids Mayor Rosalynn Bliss also spoke at the event.
Rickert said before her speech that she sees the opportunity to tell her story as a gift.
“It’s almost like I’ve come full circle,” she said. “For me to use cancer as a gift now, I’m able to help others through a dark time in their lives. I am so honored to do this.”