“Breast cancer runs wide and deep in my family. It was just a matter of time,” Beth Erickson says. It may seem like a cavalier sentiment about a life-changing diagnosis, but Erickson, 63, knew what she was up against most of her life. The daughter of a medical doctor and registered nurse —and herself a medical transcriptionist—Erickson was fully immersed in the medical aspects of cancer. Erickson’s maternal grandmother died from breast cancer, her own mother was diagnosed with it years ago and had a mastectomy. With that family history, Erickson started participating in the High Risk Breast Cancer Program through the Piper Breast Center through Allina and started mammograms and other examinations every six months nearly 10 years ago. As part of the program, she also received genetic testing and learned she carries a mutation of the CHEK2 gene, which indicates an increased risk of cancers.
Those semi-annual procedures weren’t pleasant, she admits. And when she was diagnosed June 7 with infiltrating ductal carcinoma this summer, the no-fuss Beth felt more resignation than dread. Always prepared and with a theme song of Matthew Wilder’s “Break My Stride” to support her, she invited friends to a Beth Breast pre-operation party at her favorite nearby restaurant, the Leaning Towner of Pizza in Minneapolis, for some fun and celebration. She asked guests to design her reconstruction breast tattoos, eat from breast-themed dishes, talk about her ta-tas. In July, she underwent a 5-hour mastectomy surgery under Dr. Elizabeth O’Leary with Minnesota Oncology. She says it went well. A few weeks later, we met up for an interview and she was feeling tired but ready to talk. Her family’s medical background prepared her for the diagnosis, her pragmatic personality helped her with the pain (yes, there was some) and the preparations (still to come). Her main advice: “Get tested.”
For the Sept/Oct Top Doctors issue, we focused on breast cancer detection and treatment stories. Here are excerpts from an interview with a breast cancer patient immediately after her surgery in July.
Minnesota Monthly: What is your family history and how did you prepare for the diagnosis and surgery?
Beth Erickson: I have a medical background. My father was a doctor. My mother was a nurse. I was a medical secretary for 32 years. I worked in operating rooms, doctors’ offices, and as you might expect, I picked up a lot just by osmosis. In terms of the language, I was absolutely comfortable. And as I’ve mentioned, I knew this was coming. It wasn’t like any big surprise. The only question as far as I was ever concerned was when—not will I?
Minnesota Monthly: Is that because of your family history? Or is it because you are so medically informed?
Beth Erickson: Knowing my family’s history, as soon as I began to understand about genetics and inheritance, I became very aware. I have inherited a few things from my mother, like allergies, so I understood the idea of [breast cancer]. What I didn’t know was if there a schedule to [being diagnosed with breast cancer] or is it just whenever it happens? As for my medical background, I think that was secondary. It definitely helps to speak the language; that saves a lot of time.
Minnesota Monthly: Can you give me a sense of the preventative steps you were taking and how you received your diagnosis?
Beth Erickson: My 25th birthday present to myself was my first mammogram. And I had them every year. And then I began to hear about this genetic testing. I began to understand about genetic inherited tendencies. … I got my blood work done and I wound up positive for what’s called the CHEK2 gene, which deals with tumor growth and cell reproduction. I was very lucky at the time that I got the test results back. Sometimes they’ll just give you a reference to a medical journal or an article or something but I had a contact in the genetics lab who was able to pull up that report and send that over.
That’s when I finally realized or understood or discovered that my time would most likely come. I decided a long time ago, what I was going to do [would be to get surgery]. I know what I want to do with my life. And I know what I want to spend time on.
My mother and I went to the same oncologist, Dr. Timothy Larson. She saw him first when she developed lymphoma, and now he’s been overseeing my care. So after [genetic testing] Dr. Larson and I had a discussion and he said, ‘I can offer you a couple of options.’ We can do watchful waiting, which I was not going to do, because I’d already been watchfully waiting, right? Or you can take Tamoxifen for five years. My mother had taken that after her breast cancer surgery, but I always had the idea or the feeling that she did that only because dad wanted it. I don’t know where that came from. So I said, ‘OK, what else you got for me?’
He offered the High Risk Breast Cancer Program. He said that involves every six months of alternating between either a mammogram or a breast MRI. And so I thought, Well, that makes the most sense to me. Because if nothing else, it reduces the amount of time between one test and a possibility of catching something. It’s a smaller span of time. So I was doing that from roughly 2018. Every six months, I would get either a mammogram or a breast MRI. And let me tell you, the breast MRI is about as graceful as you can imagine, but everybody was so good and polite.
Minnesota Monthly: Tell us about the surgery.
Beth Erickson: I don’t remember a lot of my time in the hospital. I had the surgery on Wednesday, the 19th of July. And then I went home that Friday. I was on the table for five plus hours. Well, that’s mainly because I am having reconstruction. And the cancer surgeon did her bit. And then the plastic surgeon came in. And he had a list of what he wanted to do. And he was able to get everything done. So, as uncomfortable as that was, I’m glad they were able to get everything taken care of.
Minnesota Monthly: What would you like readers to know?
Beth Erickson: I’m very open with the questions you’ve asked and I posted on Facebook that if anybody has any questions, I’m more than happy to answer them. I am fanatical about education and self-education. If I was to give one piece of advice, get yourself tested. Get a mammogram. The way that my mother found out she had cancer was every year in October—which is breast cancer awareness month—I would send her a card. And I would write, ‘I love you, get a mammogram.’ And when she called me at work to tell me that she had that she had cancer, the first thing she said was, ‘I want to thank you for promoting mammography.’