Survivor Series: Meet Amy Caster
‘I can’t believe I’m making this call, but you have breast cancer.’
By ELLYN SANTIAGO
Amelia “Amy” Caster is a survivor, though she hasn’t always seen herself that way.
“For a very long time, I had a hard time thinking of myself as a survivor. I had so many people to help carry me through,” she shared. “So much worked out in my favor compared to what so many others go through.”
Her sisters have another take. They see her as a triumphant warrior. By her side every step of the way, Sarah Teixeira and Jennifer Marr-Kupka shared that Amy often seemed to worry more about how her breast cancer was affecting them and others in her family. “Amy showed her strength throughout her battle with breast cancer,” Jennifer said.
During Amy’s chemotherapy, for example, both she and Sarah would accompany Amy to her treatment. “Through that, I think Amy was more concerned with how her sisters were handling this emotional time, even though it was her treatment,” Jennifer remembered. Sarah agreed.
“Losing the battle was never an option for her,” Sarah said. “It was a long journey for our family, and she always made it look easy. She never wanted us to worry about her.”
And then there’s Amy’s daughter Grace, who was just a preschooler when Amy was diagnosed 12 years ago. Now a 16-year-old, Grace, too, sees her mother as a survivor and a hero.
“I’m proud of my mom,” Grace said. “She is the best mom in the world.”
‘I can’t believe I’m making this call, but you have breast cancer.’
In 2011, Amy, now a Senior Manager in Information Management-PCRU at Pfizer and the Development and Outreach Director for TBBCF, discovered a lump in her breast. She contacted her OB-GYN.
“He at first said, ‘Let’s give it another month,’” she recalled.
A month later, he referred her to a surgeon, and after an ultrasound, the surgeon said that out of an abundance of caution he wanted to biopsy the mass. Right there and then. In his office.
Three days later, he called and said, “I can’t believe I’m making this call, but you have breast cancer.”
Amy explained that his initial thinking was, “I’m really not concerned about this given your history and age, but I have learned to take things further, just in case.” If he hadn’t taken that step, I don’t know …if he had sent me on my way …
But for Amy, his action would become thematic for her long breast cancer journey.
interesting because it was kind of a theme for everything I went through. It’s like, I was taken care of somehow. I was super fortunate to have the most amazing people around me …like that doctor. He found it. He somehow knew it was different, knew he had to take it seriously despite me having no history and no health issues prior.”
“After diagnosing me with breast cancer, he sent me for a mammogram. The scariest part is that the mammogram came back normal. The breast cancer was not visible on the mammogram. Had the surgeon not performed a biopsy, it would not have been found at that point. He absolutely saved my life.”
Not certain about the type of cancer, a lumpectomy was performed and triple-negative breast cancer was found. Around 10 to 15 percent of all breast cancers discovered are triple-negative, which the American Cancer Society says, and “refers to the fact that the cancer cells don’t have estrogen or progesterone receptors and also don’t make any or too much of the protein called HER2.” It differs “from other types of invasive breast cancer in that it tends to grow and spread faster, has fewer treatment options, and tends to have a worse prognosis.”
Faced with this diagnosis at 41, she was told that what would follow “had to be pretty strong.”
“We’re coming at you with both barrels … with everything we possibly can,” she was told … a second surgery, chemotherapy and radiation.
But after all the treatment, it wasn’t the end of the story.
Amy must have scans every six months. She explained that most of her treatment was “just monitoring”. Many of the scans showed areas of concern which needed to be biopsied. And over and over and over again the thought: “What if it comes back?”
She ended up having a double mastectomy and then implants, which she’d later have removed during DIEP flap surgery.
“I feel good. I feel lucky, blessed and fortunate,” she said. “Breast cancer reframes how you think about things.”
And what helped her through it all was that she was “never alone.”
“I felt carried through.”
Jennifer and Sarah, her parents, the rest of her family, including her ex-husband, “gave me a ton of support.” She said she always felt “carried through.” An open and nurturing arm collective ready to wrap around her. Meals were made weekly. Freshly-baked cookies were left on her doorstep; a treat for the staff at her doctor’s office.
“I had been planning on how I would do this without a lot of help. But I soon realized that it was a really selfish way for me to be. I needed to let them in. To drive me, though I could drive myself. My sisters, my friends, my ex-husband, were all so supportive. They couldn’t take away the cancer. They couldn’t take the treatment for me. They couldn’t do anything to make me better, but I realized it was more about their need to do something to help. They love me, and they’re kind of just watching it happen. So I started letting people do things when they asked if they could help.”
They made sure weekly meals were scheduled and delivered. They went to doctor appointments and chemo with her.
“One of the nurses where I had chemo said to me, ‘You and your sisters have a good time when you’re here.’ We laughed and told stories. It made the chemo that much better. So other people in chemo, especially people that were alone, would sit nearby.”
Jennifer was happy learning that her sister felt so supported during this time in her life.
“As a family member of someone going through any type of struggle, I think it’s easy to question if you are doing enough to support them,” Jennifer shared, “Or are you being overbearing.”
And Sarah recalled that “It was not an easy time, but we were strong for Amy.”
“It was very difficult to see her go through the process of chemo and not be able to ease some stress on her body and mind,” Sarah said. “And she willingly went through all the genetic testing for the sake of her daughter and nieces. I am so grateful for that.”
Amy said she not only had this love and support, she was blessed to have “amazing health insurance and had the best possible care.”
As she said, she had a hard time thinking of herself as a survivor.
“So much worked out in my favor. Far more than what a lot of people go through. I sat in chemo with people who were always alone and people who had to rush back to their jobs after chemo. Me? I was carried through.”
“She is brave and inspiring.”
Amy’s daughter Grace, with whom she has a “very special bond,” was very young when her mother was diagnosed with breast cancer. Amy said she and her former husband were “really careful” about what Grace knew.
“We didn’t tell her I had cancer. We didn’t want her to pick up on cancer … cancer, where people die,” she said. “We wanted everything to appear as normal as possible. We kept her schedule the same; while she was at Pfizer Kids during the day, I’d rest so by the time she got home, we’d have dinner, and then lay down. She’d rub my head as she was falling asleep. That was our routine, and she rolled with it.”
Amy had been in chemo for weeks and was concerned about hair loss before Grace’s upcoming birthday party. Fortunately, she still had hair on the day of the party. To make the transition from hair to no hair, Amy and her sisters decided to shave Amy’s head the day after the party.
Jennifer said Amy had spoken to her about her plan.
“She talked to me about it and decided that I would shave it for her. I can remember how emotional I was to do this, and I was trying my hardest to keep my emotions in check as this was not about me. Amy kept a positive attitude and was even cracking jokes. At the time, all our kids were young, and Amy’s first concern was that she did not want to scare or upset her daughter or nieces and nephews, as we were all getting together shortly for dinner. Based on that concern, Amy made the decision to put a hat on until they got used to seeing her this way. She wore a hat, not because she was embarrassed, but because she put others’ feelings over hers.”
Amy asked Grace and a friend if they wanted to see her head, and they eventually said yes. “We laughed and joked, and when I took the hat off, they all giggled. I was so happy because Grace wasn’t scared. It just became normal.”
Jennifer and Sarah played an important part in that process and, for both of them, it stands out as a pivotal moment in the journey.
Sarah said the head-shaving was, for her, the “hardest part.”
“When she lost her hair, it just made it seem more real to me. But she handled it like a champ and rocked that bald head,” Sarah said. “She was very strong through the whole process, and that was so inspiring.”
Many people use the word inspiring when speaking about Amy. Including Grace.
“She is brave and inspiring,” Grace said about her mom.
“TBBCF feeds my heart.”
She had to talk to her doctor to “work around the walk” at the time of her second lumpectomy. It was that important to her that she walk in the TBBCF signature event, the Walk for a Cure, held every fall.
“It definitely is what feeds my heart. I believe in the mission and everything we do. The people are amazing. They really are the best people. Once I was done with treatment, I felt like I needed to do something. I felt like I had to give back. I didn’t know how to do that, so I reached out to the Foundation and asked to volunteer. That has morphed into the role I now have. It truly feeds my heart. My other job is great, but I truly believe in the Foundation, and I believe the research and the science is key to better treatment and better outcomes. And the cure.”
Amy said she’s come through the journey far from alone, and shrugs off the moniker of survivor. “I’m so grateful I didn’t have to do this alone. I was carried.”
And her sister Sarah shared that Amy’s journey continues, but it’s a journey to find a cure.
“She continues to fight for others going through breast cancer and is a wonderful advocate and supporter,” Sarah said of her sister. “I admire her passion for finding a cure and making the road easier for other women. She is a warrior.”