SWAT battles breast cancer with education and support

Sue Eichler received many cards when recovering from breast cancer. Photo by Jacqueline Smith.

Sue Eichler received many cards when recovering from breast cancer. Photo by Jacqueline Smith.

Taylor Rogers

Sue Eichler is a mammographer. With an X-ray, she can spot and examine the smallest of lumps, those that can’t even be felt, so that the cancerous cells are treated before they spread through the body.

Eichler knows the importance of regular breast examinations. After all, she’s been a mammographer for 25 years. When she does find a lump, she said she comforts, reassures and educates. Eichler knows the ins and outs of breast cancer.

How does she know so much? Well, she’s been there.

She can’t remember exactly when, but Eichler said it was somewhere in the midst of her chaos that she read an article about a breast cancer support group meeting at Kent State. It sparked her interest.

“I didn’t think I needed any more information or any support,” Eichler said, “but after I was done with my treatments and felt better, I wanted to chat with other women about their journey through their treatments and how it affected them.”

Two years later and Eichler is now the co-facilitator of the self-proclaimed Survivors with Attitude (SWAT).

What do SWAT teams and these survivors have in common? Battle.

“They’re really going through a war,” said Dianne Kerr, co-facilitator for SWAT and associate professor of health education and promotion at Kent State.

The war can last years. It can retreat and resurface and do it again. It’s unforgiving.

But that’s why SWAT was formed — to give these women someone to talk with, someone to relate to throughout combat, Kerr said.

Karen Wiper, a 63-year-old breast cancer survivor, said that’s the one essential element that has kept her coming back — “being with people that can understand what I’ve gone through because they’ve gone through it.”

Kerr and another former Kent State professor formed SWAT in 2008 with the help of a one-year grant from Susan G. Komen for the Cure. They started small, placing flyers around the Kent community and around the university.

At its best, the group had 10 members, Kerr said. After SWAT gained funding for another year, they put money toward 15 scholarships for memberships to Kent State’s Student Recreation and Wellness Center. Ten memberships went to the group members, and five went to Robinson Memorial Hospital’s cancer support group.

Kerr said she thought it crucial to get a hold of these scholarships because of the overwhelming research on the benefits of exercise.

“We now know that physical activity both helps to prevent breast cancer, and it helps with recidivism (relapse),” Kerr said.

But like in any war, the many adversaries reared their ugly heads. They fired from all angles.

Susan G. Komen didn’t offer funding for a third year. Kerr said the group funds itself. SWAT fired back; Kent State’s Field House now allows them to walk the track free of charge.

Kerr has not had a personal experience with cancer. However, she said breast cancer has touched her life through her friends.

“I’m horrified at the number of people I know that have it,” she said.

Kerr needed another leader, though, so she made Eichler her second in command. She said Eichler’s professional knowledge combined with her obstinate experience with cancer made her the ideal candidate to lead the group. Eichler’s war held the element of Murphy’s Law, she said.

“Everything that could go wrong did with her cancer.”

Eichler received her routine mammogram in March 2007. By June, she said she could feel a large mass in her left breast. It was roughly 5 centimeters, the size of a hacky sack.

Because her breast tissue is so dense, her X-ray couldn’t pick up the tumor.

You’d think she’d be shaken, but Eichler said she wasn’t.

“Somewhere in the back of my mind I always thought I’d have breast cancer,” she said, “and I don’t know why.”

What followed was a series of tests and surgeries, including a mastectomy (surgically removing part of the breast) and lymph node removal.

She then completed 18 chemotherapy and 32 radiation treatments. Eichler said the exhaustion she experienced during chemo was indescribable.

“Do you get dressed that day or do you take a shower?” Eichler said. “Because you really only have the energy to do one.”

She developed pneumonia in addition to her fatigue and had to stay in the hospital. She came dangerously close to receiving a blood transfusion, she said.

But after breast reconstruction, Eichler was cancer free, and she still is. She treasures a box piled with hundreds of cards from friends and family sent during her treatments. She said she uses her understanding of breast cancer as way to help others, which she does at each SWAT meeting.

“That’s just the way we (my family) were raised; to always help somebody,” she said, “whether they’re better than you or less than you.”

So Eichler began leading discussions and contacting the members to schedule SWAT’s meetings. Wiper said Eichler’s candid nature allowed her to feel less fear in sharing her own story.

“She’s been vital to the support group,” Wiper said.

But SWAT continued to experience hardships.

Violet Reaser, long-time member of the group, died right before Christmas 2010. Kerr said her death shook the group to its core. It was SWAT’s own Pearl Harbor.

“She was a real leader,” Kerr said. “She’d say, ‘Let’s just watch funny movies next week or let’s play a game.’ She wasn’t always dwelling on the cancer.”

Reaser’s sister, Estella , and close friend were also regular members. They were both survivors too, but neither one has returned since Violet’s passing.

Eichler isn’t willing to surrender, though. She said she’s kept in contact with Estella and hopes she will return to SWAT.

“I think she wants to come, but she knows it’s going to be very difficult to be at that first meeting without her sister,” Eichler said.

Reaser’s death has hollowed out the group, and SWAT’s future is now unclear.

Kerr said they have hit a wall, and she and Eichler must decide to revitalize or call it quits.

They meet twice a month in a conference room at the Women’s Center, but attendance is low.

Eichler said she would like to see the group take a more personal approach, reaching out to new members during their most difficult time: chemotherapy.

“Most of the women who need support really are too fatigued to come to the group,” Eichler said.

Her plan is to set up a phone buddy system so the women can experience the camaraderie and the encouragement of their fellow survivors during their treatments.

Once the treatments are complete, Eichler said most women feel victorious.

“You wear it as a badge of courage that you can make it through,” she said.

Kerr said she wants to call more attention to the group with better marketing and start meeting once a month rather than twice.

But both Kerr and Eichler agreed the ultimate, ideal goal is to draw survivors in so they can feel some sense of comfort.

To Kerr and Eichler, breast cancer means war, and they want SWAT to be the women’s armor.

Contact Taylor Rogers at [email protected].