Cheryl Rivers is used to being a rock to the people around her. She’s a hardworking mom who raised two children on her own.
But after a stage 2 breast cancer diagnosis, she had trouble finding stability – until she came to Wilmot Cancer Institute’s Comprehensive Breast Care at Pluta, where she had many experts taking care of her.
“I think I'm just most grateful for all of the people,” she says. “They say it takes a village to raise a child. It's kind of the same concept when you're going through cancer.”
Cheryl has dense breasts and often gets cysts. So when she felt a lump in January 2022, she wasn’t very worried. Her doctor sent her for a mammogram and ultrasound. A suspicious finding led to a biopsy and then she got the news: she had breast cancer.
The fear was real. She had never known anyone with breast cancer. Her only contact with cancer was a childhood friend of her son who had died from leukemia when her son was 9.
“My first question was, is this a death sentence?” she remembers thinking.
She met with surgical oncologist Ann Olzinski-Kunze, MD, and then met her medical oncologist, Michelle Shayne, MD, and they put a plan in place that helped ease the distress around not knowing what would happen.
Her cancer was stage 2B, meaning it hadn’t spread to lymph nodes yet. She opted for an aggressive chemotherapy regimen. It wasn’t easy but she tried to make the best of it. She lost her hair but embraced her baldness and instead focused on her clothes. She treated herself to a new outfit for each infusion, looking for colorful options that would add brightness.
“It was fun to think, what am I going to buy for this treatment? What color am I going to wear? One color I never wore was black,” she says. “My wardrobe contains a lot of black but I made the decision I was never going to do black. Neon green, white, pink, just to keep it happy. The nurses were always excited to see what outfit I was going to come in with.”
She also took advantage of the Pluta Integrative Oncology & Wellness Center while receiving chemotherapy. For almost every appointment, she would get acupuncture, and she believes it helped with neuropathy.
“I loved the fact that Pluta was open to bringing in eastern medicine with the western medicine,” she says.
She learned tips and tricks that helped her throughout chemo. For example, on days when she had to have a drug known as the “red devil,” it’s recommended to chew ice to prevent mouth sores. That didn’t sound good, so instead, Cheryl brought frozen fruits and gelato. Another drug put a weird taste in her mouth, so she combated that with a strong-tasting cough drop.
“I had good days and I had bad days but I had days – and for that I was beyond grateful,” she shared. Remembering this mantra throughout treatment helped remind her that this was a journey.
Though she faced many side effects, her chemotherapy was successful; her tumor shrank. On her last day of chemotherapy, her daughter surprised her with a shirt specially made in Madrid. She came to watch Cheryl ring the bell at Pluta.
When it was time to consider surgery, Cheryl decided her course based on discussions with her team about the latest data and research. Trust in many people at Wilmot helped her to overcome stress along the way, she says.
“Going into it, I had no idea what I was getting into. I just had so much fear and so much anxiety, which I don’t ever have,” she says. “Throughout the whole process, everybody just made me feel okay and let me know that I was going to be okay. And that's all I wanted.”
Now that she is officially finished with treatment and doing well, she hopes sharing her story might help others. She wants to encourage other women to keep up with their mammograms so cancer can be found early, and to offer reassurance to others who are feeling lonely and afraid.
She also wants to go back to being that rock for others, just like so many have been for her since her diagnosis.
“I went in feeling like I was alone. I didn't know anybody with cancer,” she says. “I realized throughout the process, I never was alone. It was just an amazing team surrounding me both medically and emotionally. It's okay to trust in the process and to believe in your doctors, to have a relationship with them and to not be afraid to ask questions.”