When I was diagnosed with breast cancer, at the age of thirty-five, I did not see my life pass before my eyes. I did not have black spots at the edge of my vision. Instead, I thought, “Oh, crap, what do I do now?”
I had been feeling poorly for a while, but attributed it to the fact I had three small children and my husband was traveling to Dubai, where we would soon move for an international expat assignment. It was stress, lack of sleep, right? I mean, I had no history of breast cancer in my family, but to be honest, the last time I did a self-exam was probably seven years ago. Who has time for that? Thank goodness for that mammogram, because by the time the cancer was found, it had started infiltrating—it was on its way to a lymph node and had created three different centers of activity. This made it Stage Three—scary, but beatable.
Once I established I would not die immediately, I set about making my treatment my new job. I am an actionoriented person. I turned to all the people and things that gave me comfort—I called friends, family, sent e-mail notes, and posted the news on Facebook. The response was swift and overwhelming—offers of support, recommendations, treatment options, child-care. It was wonderfully surprising— and humbling—to see the community outreach and the way we were embraced locally and globally.
But the most interesting thing was the response from Duke and my Duke friends. After college, you go your separate ways and end up scattered across the country. But immediately I had calls and offers from friends I hadn’t seen in years. One had a father who was an oncologist who ended up talking me through my diagnosis and treatment plan, and he helped me to judge where and how I should proceed. Another friend sent a meal—long distance— so that we could have a night without worry. There were also dozens of cards. And then, there was the school itself.
I had e-mailed a friend in the administration to tell him I wouldn’t be able to participate in an alumni event. His response: “Have you talked to the people at the Duke Cancer Institute? They are amazing—call them, they can help.” My husband and I both went to Duke; we have a dog named Cameron, got married in the chapel. Getting involved with Duke was the natural thing to do, even at this time of crisis. Especially at this time. Frankly, I needed an outlet. I had decided to stay in Austin to be with my family and network, so going to Duke for treatment didn’t make sense. But in between battling through chemo, there were days of extreme lucidity where I needed to channel my energy into something positive.
I got in touch with the Duke Cancer Institute, and the staff immediately embraced me and recognized my need to help and to matter. They paired me with an amazing student who had created a Blue Devils vs. Cancer student support group. She and I spent the summer working on websites and Facebook pages, drafting proposals, and creating marketing materials to try to capture some of the magic I felt in turning back to Duke when I needed a home base.
The Duke Cancer Institute named me its first Alumni Ambassador. I attended a board meeting and pitched the idea of creating a more targeted strategy for engaging alumni into the Duke Cancer Institute and its amazing work. The idea—Blue Devils vs. Cancer for alumni— would be a way to learn, coordinate, and engage with the school and its resources when cancer rears its head.
My work at Duke is still ongoing—and frankly so is my survivorship. I am cancer-free as of August 2012, but I will be on some level of treatment and care for the next ten years.
There are a number of factors to my success: my family, my support in Austin, my amazing team of doctors. But also Duke, for giving me something bigger than myself. This last October, for breast-cancer awareness, I raised funds for the local organization that provided me with friends, counselors, and comfort during the dark days. My Duke friends helped me raise more than $5,000 in two weeks.
Duke truly is a gift that keeps on giving, in ways large and small, unexpected and amazing.
Lauren Elsner Ward ’97 is the director of client development at Business Talent Group. She is a volunteer with the Pink Ribbon Cowgirls and the coach of the under-8 soccer team the Silver-Hawks. She lives in Austin, Texas, with her husband, Davis Ward ’95, and is the proud mother of three, including twins.