‘Beauty in the battle’

Emily Rickert lost a loved one to breast cancer. Two weeks later, at age 24, she was diagnosed.

In 2013, after a five-year battle, Emmy Rickert lost her Aunt Jodi to breast cancer.

Two weeks later, at age 24, Rickert began fighting the same battle.

Rickert was still grieving the loss of her mom, who died of a brain aneurysm just two years prior. Seven months before her mom passed away, Emmy’s dad endured a heart transplant.

Two weeks after Aunt Jodi died, while Emmy worked as a legislative aide for a state senator in Lansing, Michigan, she felt a bruised area on her chest.

“I felt deeper and felt a lump,” Emmy said. “I was an active 24-year-old who exercised regularly. I wondered if I pulled a muscle or dropped something on it.”

Rickert visited her OB-GYN in Lansing.

“She said, ‘You’re 24, it’s probably nothing,” Rickert said. “’Let’s check back in a month.’”

Still tender from the loss of her aunt, she wanted to be sure. She pushed.

“I really credit my aunt with my life,” Rickert said. “I tell people to be their own health advocate, I really had to push my OB to get it checked further. I didn’t feel comfortable having just lost my aunt.”

Rickert talked her doctor into ordering an ultrasound.

“I remember going in thinking ‘whatever journey I’m about to start, help me to be strong enough for it,’” Rickert said. “I just didn’t have a good feeling about it.”

Cancer at 24

Shortly after the Friday morning ultrasound began, the technician stepped out and brought the radiologist in. He immediately ordered a core biopsy.

On Monday, while at her desk at work, she got the results.

“The radiologist called me and told me I had breast cancer,” Rickert said. “He seemed quite shaken. He said, ‘I’ve never had to call a 24-year-old to tell them they have breast cancer.”

I remembered back to when I was a child. Whenever I was sick and had to take medicine, (my mom would) say, ‘Alright, I’m sending the soldiers in to kill the bad guys.’ Every time I watched the chemo flow into my body, I thought of my mom and felt her there. I thought, ‘We’re sending the good guys in to kill the bad guys.’

Emmy Rickert
Breast cancer survivor

The words rang in her ears. Just like in the movies. But this wasn’t fantasy. Instead, earth-shattering reality.

“My ears started ringing after I heard the word ‘cancer,'” she said. “I didn’t hear anything after. My world was spinning at that point. I didn’t understand why this was happening. I hadn’t prepared myself for those words ‘you have cancer.’ I don’t know if anyone can prepare themselves for that.”

Rickert’s mind whirled. She feared not only for her life, but she feared how she would tell her family about the diagnosis. They had already lost so much. So fast.

Right then, right there, she vowed to have the most optimistic and positive attitude possible.

“Having seen my family go through so much, I knew that was the answer,” she said.

Sharing the diagnosis with family

Rickert picked up her younger sister from Central Michigan University. They drove to their family home in Hersey, Michigan, near Reed City.

“I told them, ‘Listen, this is what’s going on,’” Rickert said. “I don’t know the specifics yet, but I’ve been diagnosed with breast cancer. I’m going to fight it and I’m not scared. I don’t want you to be, either.”

She soon learned the specifics. They weren’t comforting.

She had triple negative breast cancer, the most aggressive form of breast cancer. She needed surgery right away.

Because her young age and triple negative diagnosis threw up red flags, she underwent a mastectomy on her left breast.

“They came out and told me it had grown an entire centimeter in the two weeks from the ultrasound to surgery,” Rickert said. “But it had not spread to my lymph nodes yet. They said if I had waited even a matter of weeks, it would be a different story.”

Further testing revealed Rickert carries the BRCA2 gene mutation.

Following surgery, Rickert wanted to go home. Home to Hersey. Home to family. Home to friends.

Knowing there was a new Spectrum Health cancer center in Reed City—the Susan P. Wheatlake Regional Cancer Center, one of six Spectrum Health cancer centers, she teamed up with a Spectrum Health oncologist to fight the foe.

She always wanted to be a mom

But the recommended chemotherapy carried a risk she wasn’t willing to take—infertility.

“The No. 1 fear for me was not losing my hair or being sick during chemo, or even death,” she said. “It was not being a mother. Being a mother has always been my dream.”

She went to a fertility specialist in Grand Rapids, and froze her eggs before commencing chemotherapy.

That decision helped instill a deep resolve. Commitment deepened. She would win this fight. She had to win this fight. For her unborn children.

“That gave me so much hope,” Rickert said. “It gave me the gumption and will to say, ‘I’m going to be a mother now no matter what the fertility outcome is after chemo. That means I need to survive this because I’m going to be a mom.’ I went into it with a suit of armor, with hope and peace.”

Only after her eggs were frozen and safely tucked away did she begin chemotherapy. She felt fear as she watched the liquid drip into her veins.

But she also felt a presence. A presence she missed so very much. Her mom.

“Along this whole journey, I could really feel my mom there,” Rickert said. “I remembered back to when I was a child. Whenever I was sick and had to take medicine, she’d say, ‘Alright, I’m sending the soldiers in to kill the bad guys.’ Every time I watched the chemo flow into my body, I thought of my mom and felt her there. I thought, ‘We’re sending the good guys in to kill the bad guys.’ I think that outlook really made a difference for me.”

Unfortunately, chemotherapy made her sick. Very sick. Aunt Jodi did well through chemotherapy. Not so for her niece.

“I was in bed for weeks at a time,” Rickert said. “My dad and little sister would help me to the bathroom. But I was glad it was kicking my butt because I thought it might be kicking cancer’s butt as well.”

‘So much gratitude’

She’s grateful she made the decision to return home.

“Being close to my family and having that support system, being in my hometown and being at Spectrum also made a difference for me,” she said. “I had so many people rooting for me and lifting me up daily. There wasn’t time to feel down. I constantly was uplifted by my doctors and my townspeople, my family and friends.”

After she recovered from chemotherapy, Rickert decided she didn’t want to ever live through the same nightmare. She proactively had her right breast removed.

A year later, she married.

She and her husband, Kelly, conceived naturally. Their daughter, Grace, entered their lives on May 15, 2015.

“I can’t even begin to describe the joy we felt,” Rickert said. “I started to enjoy living. I felt so much gratitude that I survived. Seeing that miracle reminded me even more how precious and fragile life was.”

Having survived her own battle, she turned her energy outward.

“I started to do as many speaking engagements as I could, trying to help as many people diagnosed, or battling cancer, as I could,” she said. “I had gone through this for a reason, and that was to be a bright light for anyone going through this. I felt so driven to let people know there is life after cancer.”

And for the Rickert family, yet another life. Their son, Huck, was born in 2016.

The children were her light at the end of the tunnel, rainbows at the end of her storm. She calls them her little rainbow children.

But she knows storms can return. That’s why she’s not taking a single moment for granted. None of them.

“I know my cancer could return or something else could happen,” Rickert said. “Life is so precious, miraculous and fragile. I’m constantly being in the moment with my family. I’m helping others see that there is life past cancer and there is beauty in the battle because it makes you so much more aware of the fragility of life and the beauty of life.”

Judy Smith, MD, chief of the Spectrum Health Cancer Center, said Emmy is an inspiration to all who know her or her story.

“Her courage and optimism in the face of adversity takes my breath away,” Dr. Smith said. “She is one in a long line of strong women who proudly carry on the legacy of Betty Ford with her candor, willingness to publicly speak of her personal journey, promote screening and early detection and, most of all, help all women take charge of their own destiny.”

Register for Candid Conversations, a free event that begins at 4 p.m. Oct. 18, 2017, at East Kentwood High School’s Fine Arts Auditorium.

If you have been diagnosed with cancer and would like a consultation or second opinion, call 1.855.SHCANCER (855.742.2623).

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