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Elite athlete finds silver lining in breast cancer battle: spreading awareness and helping others

Random stop at mammography van led to diagnosis
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Posted at 7:00 AM, Sep 23, 2016
and last updated 2016-09-23 07:00:50-04

CINCINNATI -- In 2015, local elite athlete Erin Lawry ran five marathons and took on the grueling Lake Tahoe Half Ironman. Less than six months later, she underwent a mastectomy after being diagnosed with breast cancer.

“I felt great,” she said. “I was perfectly healthy, I was running all these marathons, I eat healthy – I had no symptoms. And I was living with breast cancer in my body, my doctor said, for probably three years and I didn’t know it.”

Everything changed the day Lawry spontaneously stopped by a mobile mammogram van for testing.

Now cancer-free, Lawry said it’s her mission to help spread the word of early detection. To raise awareness, she helped organize the upcoming Mobile Breast Center event from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturday at Loveland Canoe and Kayak, 200 Crutchfield Place. The UC Barrett’s Mobile Diagnostic Van will be onsite for testing from noon until 3 p.m. A portion of the proceeds from the event will be donated to the UC Barrett Cancer Center. (See the video invitation here.)

A bit of fate along with divine intervention led Lawry to get tested that day, she said. Like many women, she had put off her annual mammogram because she was busy with family and work. While running errands, she saw the mobile van parked at a shopping center near her home. Even though she didn’t have an appointment, she said UC Barrett Mobile Diagnostic Van registered technician Sharon Williams graciously fit her in.

Breast cancer survivor Erin Lawry, right, calls UC Barrett Cancer Center technician Sharon Williams her guardian angel. Provided.

“The other kind of goosebump thing was this mammogram truck was a UC Barrett truck, and that’s where I used to take my mom to chemotherapy,” she said. “So I really believe my mom put that there for me that day.”

After detecting an abnormality during initial testing, Williams was again by her side during the biopsy. Lawry said the experience could have been frightening and unpleasant had it not been for Williams, who stayed with her, rubbing her back and calming her during the procedure. Lawry calls Williams her guardian angel and credits her with saving her life by staying late to test her.

“If you close that door on the van and you have someone who wants to come on and have the mammogram, how do you know you haven’t turned away someone who has cancer and doesn’t even know it?” Williams said. “I want to make sure I sleep well at night.”

One in eight women are diagnosed with breast cancer, Williams said, and 85 percent of those diagnosed have no history of breast cancer or genetic predisposition. She said she usually detects abnormalities in women who have skipped mammograms for a few years because they’re afraid of the results, their insurance won’t cover the procedure or they’re simply too busy.

“Cancer does not discriminate against anyone,” she said. “When I find out their results, some are not so great and some are very great because we caught it so soon – and that’s when it’s rewarding. Because we take that van, we go different places and we save somebody’s life.”

Special relationships like the one with Lawry develop because women often come back multiple times for treatment, Williams said. In terms of outreach, she said she's encouraged by Lawry's efforts to spread awareness, as survivors’ voices often resonate deeply with women. Lawry recently participated in a cover story contest for a issue of Runner’s World with the theme “How I can inspire others.” She was a finalist and received more than 5,000 votes.

“So many people messaged me on Facebook and told me they read my story and got a mammogram,” Lawry said. “I feel like even if I didn’t get the cover, at least I made a difference in some people’s lives.”

Lawry, 45, is upbeat, but the last few years have been riddled with heartache. In 2013, her 48-year-old sister died of an overdose. Later that year, she dedicated her Boston Marathon run to her sister, crossing the finish line just 18 minutes before the explosion of a bomb that killed three bystanders and injured more than 200 people. Almost a year to the day of her sister’s death, doctors diagnosed her mother with a rare form of inoperable ductal cancer. She lost her mother New Year’s Eve morning 2015, then received her own breast cancer diagnosis in May 2016. Lawry uses her mother as an inspiration to stay positive.

“Seeing my mom suffer the way that she did and her smiling every day and being grateful every day, I can’t be negative,” she said. “Just seeing how strong my mother was every day dealing with her cancer made me stronger dealing with mine.”

During the months of September and October, pink-clad athletes at events around the globe raise money and awareness for breast cancer. Unfortunately, Lawry said insurance companies aren’t always as supportive. Instead of encouraging testing, she said, her insurance company along with a number others scaled back, covering fewer mammograms for women between ages 40 to 50.

“My breast surgeon said I was so smart to get checked because I was still within the guidelines of getting a mammogram,” she said. “Had I waited until 50, I would have been dead.”

To help women with limited coverage or no insurance, Williams said, the UC Barrett’s Mobile Diagnostic Van offers financial assistance for those who qualify. Bringing the van into the community often helps those without transportation to a testing center, too. To spread the word about where the van will be parking, fliers are sent to residents and community centers and a location calendar is posted on the website.

“The equipment that we use is the same as they use at our facility, so there’s no difference in going to the hospital or going on the van,” Williams said. “It usually takes 15 minutes, and early detection definitely increases treatment options and survival rates. Screening is the very first step, and it’s very, very important.”

Lawry will also be spreading the word at this year’s Queen Bee Half Marathon on Oct. 8, leading the three-hour pace group. She said during the females-only event she’ll be able to share her experience along with helping women achieve their aspirations of completing a half-marathon.

“It feels so good to help other people achieve their goal,” Lawry said. “And maybe that’s why I got breast cancer — so that I could help other people.”