CINCINNATI — Breast cancer was the unwelcome visitor that Sherry Hughes had prepared to get for most of her life.
Her mother was diagnosed with breast cancer when Hughes was a young woman just starting her adult life.
“She had a mastectomy. She lived for a year. We thought that she would be just fine,” said Hughes, a meteorologist at WCPO 9. “And then my mom passed away, suddenly. And it was devastating for me and my siblings and my dad.”
Hughes always has stayed as healthy as she could, eating right and exercising.
Year after year, she’s gotten routine mammogram screenings, which always came back normal. She got tested for the BRCA genes that show a hereditary predisposition to breast cancer. That test came back clear, too. She asked her gynecologist if there were additional tests she could get, and Dr. Amy Thompson told Hughes about the breast MRI, a test that can help detect cancer in women like Hughes who have dense breast tissue.
Thompson helped Hughes petition her health insurance company to pay for the test, and the insurer finally agreed. Hughes got it in July 2019.
“We were looking at the breast MRI as another test to get a baseline,” Hughes said. “In the event anything was going on, we’d have another way to compare what my 3-D mammogram was saying or showing and what the breast MRI was showing.”
But the test turned out to be much more than that.
Dr. Su-Ju Lee, the radiologist who studied the results, saw something suspicious. She and Thompson asked Hughes to return for more testing and some biopsies.
Hughes got the last of the results on July 30, 2019. A doctor called as she was getting ready for work.
“He said, ‘Good morning, Mrs. Hughes. We’ve got your test results back, and I’m sorry to say it’s a cancerous tumor. We’re going to take care of you,’” she said. “He said, ‘It’s small, but it’s something that has to be addressed.’”
That was how Hughes found out – nearly 30 years after her mother’s death – that breast cancer had come calling for her, too.
‘Here it is again, Mom’
“I’m sitting at the edge of my bed hearing, ‘You have cancer,’” Hughes said. “I started thinking about my mom, and I started really talking to her. I was like, ‘Mom, here I go, Mom. Here it is, Mom. Here it is again, Mom.’”
Still, Hughes said, she had faith.
“I know that you’ve talked to God,” she told her mom. “And I know that this is gonna be OK. So I’m not gonna worry about it.”
“That’s what I’m doing,” Hughes said of that morning. “I’m sitting on the edge of my bed talking to my mother, who’s in heaven. And I’m thinking, ‘She’s hanging out with God. So I’m good.”
Hughes finished getting dressed and called her husband, Myron, to give him the news as she was leaving their home. He was shaken -- and stunned that she was going to work to provide the weather forecast for that day’s noon news.
She had planned to leave right after the noon show. But severe storms were “popping,” she said, so she stayed to help Chief Meteorologist Steve Raleigh with coverage.
Before Hughes left, she asked to speak with a manager privately to explain her situation.
“When I had to tell somebody else, when I had to say to someone else that I have cancer, that was hard. Because then that made it really, really real,” she said.
She cried, they hugged, and Hughes went home to meet her husband and begin a series of doctor appointments.
That same evening, she had her first appointment with Dr. Elyse Lower, director of the University of Cincinnati Cancer Center’s comprehensive breast cancer program and a professor in the department of internal medicine.
“I don’t know if I had the look of fear on my face or Myron looked as if he was afraid. But she looked at both of us,” Hughes said. “She’s looking at the chart, and she’s looking at my test results. She goes, ‘I’m Dr. Lower.’ She said, ‘I’m going to be your oncologist. I’m looking at all this information. Let’s just get something straight: You’re gonna be OK.’”
‘I’ve got a life to live’
Lower explained that Hughes had invasive ductal carcinoma, Hughes said, “and then the information started coming fast and furious.”
“My part of the journey was to ensure that she had her appropriate, what we call, systemic treatment, which included very aggressive chemotherapy,” Lower told WCPO. “It was still a very early-stage breast cancer. Today we want to find breast cancer at its earliest possible stage.”
“It is treatable at every stage,” she added. “But our very best outcomes happen in women who find their cancers at the earliest stages.”
Hughes felt reassured, she said, but also couldn’t help but feel “heavy.”
“Truthfully, I wasn’t afraid. But I did not want to see my husband and my family go through it, too,” she said, her voice cracking with emotion. “Because I had been that child. I had been that child with my sister and my brother and my dad, watching Mom fight for her life. I didn’t want them to do that. I didn’t want them to go through it. That’s, that was heavy.”
Hughes didn’t stay weighed down for long.
“I looked up to God, and I was like, ‘I trust you.’ And I felt that weight lift again,” she said. “From that moment, I just started moving and staying in the light and moving to my healing. Whatever I needed to do. I kept thinking that, you know what, this, too, shall pass.”
Hughes quickly began treatment – and almost immediately started sharing information about her cancer on air and through her popular social media platforms.
She got her hair cut short instead of waiting to lose it all.
She talked openly about the wig her hair stylist made for her and wore it on air.
And when the wig made her hot and uncomfortable, she delivered the weather forecast with no hair at all.
“What I think I was showing everyone is that I’m taking control of my life, and I’m not going to worry about the superficial or what I look like. I’ve got something bigger to worry about. And it’s called cancer,” Hughes said. “But truth be told, I’m not going to worry about cancer either. Cancer will have to worry about itself. Because I’ve got a life to live, and that’s what I’m going to do.”
A new sense of purpose
That approach, Lower said, has made Hughes a role model for others across the region and beyond.
“She inspired so many people,” Lower said. “She displayed such grace and fortitude that we should all look at that and admire it.”
Hughes didn’t give it much thought, she said, before deciding to talk publicly about her cancer.
“I just felt as if I wasn’t going to hide anything,” she said. “I had lots of viewers and social media followers that I talk to on a daily basis. And I just was not going to live my life hiding what was going on.”
She didn’t want the audience to be distracted by the changes in her appearance, she said. Hughes had a job to do, and she kept doing it.
“I didn’t want that to be the topic of conversation,” Hughes said. “Put it out there. Now you all know. If you don’t know, you’ll find out. And guess what? I’m not talking about it every day. I’m moving my life forward, and I’m gonna do the job I have to do.”
Viewers and social media followers reacted with love and support.
“The more I shared,” Hughes said, “the stronger I felt.”
Hughes learned on Christmas day, 2019, that the chemotherapy had eliminated all detectable traces of her cancer. She had surgery to remove precancerous cells in her left breast and some lymph nodes to make sure the disease hadn’t spread. She followed up with radiation treatments that she completed on March 31, 2020 and immunotherapy treatments after that.
In all, she spent a year fighting the cancer that her breast MRI first detected, the diagnosis she had expected for years that she might get.
But Hughes also got something from the whole experience that she didn’t expect: A new sense of purpose.
“I want my life to be about something. I want it to mean something,” she said. “And now I know it does.”
She’s lost count of the number of emails and messages and letters she has received from people who tell her how her story has helped them.
“I never felt alone. I never felt that I wasn’t going to make it or survive. I felt like, you know what, I trust God. And if He were to say, ‘Sherry, you know what, it’s time for you, you know. If He would have told me that, ‘You know, it’s time for you to come home,’ I still trust God,” she said. “But what he told me was, ‘There’s still more work for you to do here.’”
And that is exactly what Sherry Hughes is doing.
Rep. Jean Schmidt, R-Loveland, and Rep. Cedric Denson, D-Cincinnati, are the primary sponsors of House Bill 371, a bill that would require Medicaid and commercial insurance plans in Ohio to cover the cost of breast MRIs for women who have dense breast tissue or elevated risk of breast cancer. Hughes and Lower both support the measure.
Lucy May writes about the people, places and issues that define our region – to celebrate what makes the Tri-State great and shine a spotlight on issues we need to address. To reach Lucy, email firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @LucyMayCincy.