Advocate and Anchor

Andrew, Anna, Erin, Jim and Alex Frazier.

Breast cancer survivor Erin Frazier is the 2018 Derby Divas honoree.

Story by Lisa Hornung

Photos by Kathryn Harrington

Five years ago, Erin Frazier was occupied with her role as a pediatrician, a mom of three and an all-around active member of the community. She built her own practice to serve mostly Medicaid patients and low-income families. She was active and happy.

Despite having a clear mammogram only a few months before, Erin felt a lump in her breast. As a doctor, she wasn’t too worried about it. She knew she would get it checked out, but it wasn’t at the top of her list of priorities. She mentioned it to her husband, Dr. Jim Frazier, but told him it was likely benign and not to worry.

Then one night, she dreamt that she had breast cancer. “I woke up the next morning and I told my husband, ‘I had a dream I had breast cancer last night, and it was really vivid,’ and I decided to get this checked out,” she said.

She got a mammogram, a second mammogram and an ultrasound, still believing that everything would be just fine. She had no family history of breast cancer and she was only 38 years old.

“The radiologist came in and said, ‘I’m 99 percent sure you have breast cancer,’ and I thought, ‘I have kids! I have young kids; I gotta be there for my kids!’ She said, ‘Don’t worry, we caught it early and you’re gonna be there for your kids.’ I just think if I hadn’t had that dream, that was, you know, sent by God, I don’t know how much more serious this might have been.”

Erin is by no means alone in her diagnosis. About one in eight women (around 12.4 percent) in the United States will develop invasive breast cancer in their lifetime, according to breastcancer.org. In 2018, an estimated 266,120 new cases of invasive breast cancer are expected to be diagnosed in women in the U.S. along with 63,960 new cases of non-invasive (in situ) breast cancer. It is the second most diagnosed cancer behind skin cancer.

Erin will serve as the honoree at this year’s Derby Divas event on April 19 at Rodes for Him and for Her on Brownsboro Road. The event – presented by Churchill Downs, Brown-Forman and the Diaz Family Foundation – raises funds for mammograms for low-income women.

The event excites Erin, she said, because the women that Derby Divas will help could be the mothers of her patients. “My passion is really high-risk, low-income patients,” she explained. “These are mammograms for my patients’ mothers. To me, it’s a big circle. I’m also the medical director for prevention and wellness on the children’s side, and this is prevention and wellness on the mothers’ side.

“I think so many of us know women or men who are diagnosed with breast cancer,” she continued. “It has touched so many people’s lives, so we’re all able to come together and either celebrate a survivor or remember those that were not able to win their fight. Raising money for mammograms for women who are struggling (and providing) the ability for them to go and get screened is so important.”

Erin knows walking the path of breast cancer is different for many women. “I can’t imagine what it must be like for someone who maybe felt a lump and needed a mammogram but didn’t feel like they could do it because of affordability,” she said. “I can’t imagine what that would be like, and that’s why these screening mobile units that go around the city and the state are so important to be funded.”

Erin herself had 15 rounds of chemotherapy, and then a double mastectomy and reconstruction. Because her cancer was hormone-receptor-positive, she now has to take shots every month to keep her body in early menopause to prevent the cancer from returning.

The chemo process was long and difficult for her, and she remembers the week before her final chemo appointment when she couldn’t face it any more. “I said to my husband, ‘I can’t do this anymore,’ and he said, ‘Come on, you’ve only got one more,’ and I said, ‘I know, but I just don’t want to be sick anymore!’”

Jim remembers watching his wife sleep at night. “I’d just look at her, and she looked so lifeless, and I’d reach over and put my hand on her chest and make sure she was still breathing,” he said. “Those were some of the toughest moments for me, just watching her just suffering through that treatment.”

Their daughter Anna, who was five years old when her mother was diagnosed, remembers being scared, too. “It’s really difficult to explain,” she said. “At first, it wasn’t that scary, but then when she went through chemo, I got really scared. My friend’s younger sister died of cancer. Then, I was nervous.”

Anna’s parents get teary-eyed when they think of her. Now that Erin has had breast cancer, they know Anna is at risk and as she gets older, Erin and Jim will have to keep an eye on her health and hope that she doesn’t suffer the same diagnosis. Their sons Alex and Drew – who were seven and three, respectively, at the time of Erin’s diagnosis – said they mostly remembered her hair falling out when she was sick. They preferred not to talk about their mom’s illness.

Erin managed to make it to her last appointment, and because of the hectic schedule of having three young children and chemotherapy, Anna didn’t have anything to take to her kindergarten class’ Share Time. When her teacher asked if she had anything to share, she told the class, “My mom doesn’t have cancer anymore.”

After chemo, Erin had the mastectomy and reconstructive surgery. She’s now been without cancer for five years and has become an advocate for women with breast cancer. Because of her experience, many women have called her when they’re diagnosed, and she has taken the time to talk to them, explain what to expect and help them understand what they’ll go through.

“She really has become an anchor for so many women with cancer,” Jim said. “I can’t tell you how many phone calls she gets just on a weekly basis; someone from school, church, one of her support groups – all getting new diagnoses. She takes her phone, goes to her room, closes her door and she just talks to them until they’re more comfortable with their diagnosis. She’s also an advocate really, and I think it’s such a wonderful thing that she’s been able to do that for so many people.”

Erin said that having cancer has made her a more compassionate doctor. When you have a frightening diagnosis, she said every moment you spend waiting for answers can be excruciating. Having experienced that has made her more aware of what her patients and their parents are going through.

As a person, cancer has made her more aware of how short life can be. “I am trying – and it’s a continual trying – to not sweat the small stuff,” she said. “And really, most things are small stuff. You realize that life is what you make it.”

In 2013, Jim nominated his wife to walk in the Kentucky Oaks Survivors Parade. “Walking in the Oaks Parade was just a celebration of beating something that you never thought you’d have to face,” she said. “(It’s) a celebration of women being thankful to be alive and being thankful that we have treatment to keep us here so that we can raise our children.” VT

12th annual Derby Divas

Benefiting Norton Cancer Institute Breast Health Program

6:30 to 9 p.m. April 19

Rodes For Him and For Her

4938 Brownsboro Road

$60 pre-admission • $70 at the door • $35 young professional (30 and under)

502.629.8060

Rodes.com (click on Events)