“You have cancer.” These three words moved our Database and Evaluation Manager into the world of mammograms, biopsies and mastectomies, ushering her into membership of a club she never hoped she would join.
Emily Sullivan is the IT guru at the Wisconsin Women’s Health Foundation (WWHF). A software engineer by education, she builds and develops databases for all of our statewide programs. These databases are vital for providing effective data collection, analysis and evaluation for both internal and external reporting. By tracking and inputting specific data, the WWHF can provide qualitative and quantitative analysis of our services which is imperative to producing high quality programs for Wisconsin women. Emily is a jack-of-all trades and has taken on additional roles as a network administrator, software support specialist and general problem solver for all IT related needs for WWHF’s 20+ employees. In her native country of China, she co-founded both the Baobei Foundation and Love Without Boundaries in Shangai, organizations providing live-saving medical care to children in orphanages.
As kind as she is intelligent, Emily exudes warmth and charisma in both her professional and personal life. A loving friend, wife and mother to her spirited 4-year-old daughter Kayla, her world was rocked when she found a lump doing a breast self-exam.
The first time Emily had felt a cancerous breast lump was on a breast model at the office. GrapeVine, one of WWHF’s six statewide programs, uses the breast model to educate women on what a cancerous lump feels like.
In March of 2016, during a self-exam, she felt a lump just like the one on the breast model. An intuitive feeling pushed her to immediately schedule a mammogram with her PCP in May. Several biopsies and a lumpectomy later, Emily was diagnosed with breast cancer on June 20th at only 35 years old.
Emily took breast cancer head on. Testing had found one cancerous tumor but she was waiting for additional biopsy results after an MRI showed a suspicious mass not previously discovered. Doctors suggested a larger lumpectomy would be sufficient until more was known, but her intuition provided another nagging feeling telling Emily otherwise. She opted for a double mastectomy despite her surgeon’s opposition and scheduled the surgery for July 13th. On June 29th, she received results that the tumor found after the MRI was one of the most aggressive forms, triple negative. Her surgeon moved up her scheduled mastectomy a week sooner.
After surgery, genetic testing showed Emily was a high risk for breast and ovarian cancer as she is a carrier of the BRCA1 mutation. Chemotherapy was scheduled for the end of July but a previously known Hepatitis-B diagnosis provided additional concerns and required specialized treatment plans. Hair shaving, wig wearing and pill popping became the new normal in an already hectic routine of juggling the daily demands of parenting a young child. Despite it all, Emily remained positive and optimistic, and never stopped working.
After sharing the news of her diagnosis and expected treatment plan with WWHF staff, Emily joined the “Breast Buddies” club with Sue Ann (WWHF President) and Tommi Thompson (WWHF Executive Director) who both are breast cancer survivors. She was encouraged to take time off to recover and recuperate, but Emily was adamant she wanted to continue working, only providing further testament to her character and commitment to improving women’s health.
There was much deliberation about sharing Emily’s Story. At the Wisconsin Women’s Health Foundation we have seen the positive impacts of health education and early detection through our programs and outreach and have heard the lifesaving stories from women we support. But this time, the story was from our co-worker, our friend, our family. Behind the scenes, internal conversations questioned whether we should or would share. One person had a strong conviction that there was no should or would, there was only must. We must share. That person was Emily.
Emily wanted to share her story to provide clarity to the importance of early detection and empower women to take control of their healthcare. She wants to use her diagnosis as a platform and has three powerful reminders for all of us:
Emily directly contributes finding the lump in her breast to the health education she received from one of WWHF’s GrapeVine Sessions on Breast Cancer. Because she knew what to look for, she found a lump that even medical testing did not. Knowledge is power, arm yourself.
Don’t be afraid to trust your intuition. Seek the advice of medical professionals and trust that they have your best interest at heart, but don’t be afraid to ask questions. You are the best advocate for your health, use your voice.
Because the recommendation is to start having mammograms at age 40, Emily may not have discovered a problem until 5 years later. By that time her Grade 3 cancer cells could have claimed more than her health. Early detection saves lives, pay attention to your body and be proactive in your health decisions.
“Thank you for taking the time to read my story. It is personal, but when is cancer not? I am a true believer of our programs at the Wisconsin Women’s Health Foundation and now have personally received the benefit of our services. I hope I can shed some light on the power of health education and the impact early detection can have on your health. I encourage you to listen to your inner voice and be your own health advocate. I didn’t ask to be in the “Breast Buddies” club, but now that I’m here, I hope my story can encourage you to take an active role in supporting women’s health.”Emily
Wishing Emily Well
Before Emily underwent her surgery for her double mastectomy, the staff at WWHF wanted her to know she had our support and fill her mind with happy thoughts, so we made her a video.
This inspiration, filming and editing of this video was created in less than 24 hours. The quality is poor but the sentiment is pure, please don’t hold our feeble videography skills against us 😉