Healthy Women Face Breast Cancer
Local women share their experiences and stories of breast cancer survival
Breast cancer risk increases steadily after age 40, even in healthy women with no family history.
But two local women, both over 40, prove that breast cancer does not mean a death sentence. Family support and expert care at Northwestern Lake Forest Hospital helped them survive—and even thrive.
Marianne and Elizabeth
Wellness has always been important to Marianne Kramer, and as a global compliance director for Baxter, her days are immersed in healthcare. But when she lost her stepfather to pancreatic cancer, she started focusing more on her own health by eating well and exercising—she even took up kickboxing. At age 43, she was feeling better than she could ever remember and enjoying life with her husband and two children in Round Lake, Illinois.
Just six miles away, in Fox Lake, Elizabeth McAllister had been working hard to open her new personal training studio, 390 Fitness—a dream years in the making. Nicknamed the “firecracker” by her father, she has been active her whole life and strict with annual mammograms. She has a degree in physical education and is always after her two grown sons to stay active. At age 51, it was a challenge starting a business. But as always, she had her good health to rely on.
Then something happened that both women never expected: each was recently diagnosed with breast cancer, despite having good health, no symptoms and no family history. It was a surprise that changed how they look at life, themselves and the caregivers they would need.
Positive, but Wary
“I got the call, but I never stopped to ask ‘why me?’” Kramer says. “I mean, why not me? Cancer isn’t choosy. I focused immediately on staying positive and facing it with love, not fear. My kids were petrified at first, but I was determined to show my family that everything would be OK.”
Kramer’s recent successful weight loss made a lump in her breast more apparent than it might have been otherwise. After her initial diagnosis, she went to Northwestern Memorial Hospital for a second opinion and then had a bilateral mastectomy performed by Northwestern Memorial breast surgeon Kevin P. Bethke, MD. Kramer wanted to take an integrated approach to treatment that avoided chemotherapy and radiation. But when she learned that her type of cancer had a high chance of recurrence and was in five lymph nodes— an indication it was spreading—she had to accept more aggressive treatment.
“Maybe I was naïve, but I wanted to treat this naturally,” she recalls. “I was wary of the chemotherapy and radiation. You hear horror stories.”
Ready to Fight, but Scared
At about the same time, just a few miles away, McAllister also felt a lump in her breast. A biopsy revealed she had a one-and-a-half centimeter cancerous tumor.
“When I got the call, they asked if there was somewhere I could sit down, and now I know why,” she says. “I was shocked and scared. My husband was about to get on a plane to California, but he came back home. I decided right away that I was going to kick this thing. I’ve got a lot more to do—my sons aren’t married yet, I want to travel more and I’ve got a business to grow.”
McAllister had a lumpectomy performed by Northwestern Memorial breast surgeon Nora Hansen, MD, chief, Division of Breast Surgery. Then she had a second follow-up surgery to improve the margins (distance between tumor and surrounding tissue). Her husband Bill—her "rock"— threw a "no chemotherapy" party for her. McAllister then began bracing for radiation treatment, not sure what to expect.
A Big Hurdle
Kramer’s physicians asked her to consider getting radiation treatment at Northwestern Lake Forest Hospital’s Grayslake Cancer Center because of the expertise of the team, as well as its proximity to her home. McAllister heard the same advice from her physicians.
“I was terrified and didn’t know how I would be treated, or what it would be like,” says McAllister. “But when I walked in, the receptionist Jean had this big smile on her face. I wanted to cry. It meant the world to me. Everyone there treats you like you’re a family member. Everyone at Grayslake is kind, loving and efficient. I never felt ill, I never waited and I didn’t have to drive far. When you have cancer, these things are a godsend. My care team kept saying, ‘wait until you get to Grayslake’—now I know what they meant.”
The smiles—and the expertise and convenience—impressed Kramer too, who admits that she was not going in with an open mind. Unlike McAllister, she also had to worry about how radiation might impact the delicate skin around her breast reconstruction.
“I went in with a lot of reluctance,” she says. “I had heard about patients becoming hoarse and leathery or struggling to manage appointments with their jobs and families. But it worked out so well—I could run over on my lunch hour. Everyone makes you feel comfortable, and that matters when you’re lying there exposed and vulnerable. And the treatment was so well done that I felt few to no side effects. There were no visible signs of damage, and that was very important for a successful reconstruction.”
Grayslake Quality is the Difference
Both women credit Joseph Imperato, MD, FACR and his team at the Grayslake Cancer Center for changing their expectations about this important step in their journey. Dr. Imperato is a board-certified, Harvard-trained oncologist who is medical director of Radiation Oncology at Northwestern Lake Forest Hospital.
“With radiation treatment, it’s important to separate the equipment from the people who run the equipment,” he explains. “At Grayslake, we have the latest technology that’s available, but we also have highly experienced technicians and a patient-centered culture. Our facility is unique in that kindness and sensitivity are prioritized throughout our center.”
Dr. Imperato acknowledges the fear associated with cancer treatment, a problem the Grayslake center was designed to address.
“Radiation ends up in the news a lot, and it scares people,” he says. “So we try to make coming here as pleasant as possible. This isn’t the typical basement facility. We’re above ground; it’s bright, airy, beautiful. There’s a café and garden. We work with patients’ schedules. We try to reduce the stressors, and that helps patients beat cancer.”
The Northwestern Grayslake Cancer Center recently earned a three-year accreditation from the American College of Radiology (ACR). The ACR committee looks deeply at the quality of patient care, processes to monitor care facilities and technology. Only five percent of radiation therapy programs nationwide have ACR accreditation. Northwestern Lake Forest is the only hospital in Lake County with the accreditation.
The Silver Lining
Today, McAllister and Kramer are feeling good, looking ahead and counting their blessings. Kramer is in the final stages of her reconstruction and will not need to follow up with her physicians for a full year. McAllister completed radiation treatment at the end of August and is considering preventive medication. Both acknowledge that cancer changes you, but often in unexpected, good ways.
“I wasn’t judgmental before cancer, but I’m even more sensitive now,” says McAllister. “You know the lady in front of you in line, who’s holding everyone up because she’s fumbling with her money or her keys? Don’t get aggravated—she might be dealing with the effects of treatment, or maybe she received some bad news. And as a personal trainer, I’m trying to help my female clients attune to their bodies. If something doesn’t feel right, check it out right away. Life is short—travel, follow your dreams, spend time with your family.”
For Kramer, cancer helped her discover the “superpowers” in her life.
“I was in a restaurant, not wearing my wig, and another cancer survivor came up and talked to me,” recalls Kramer. “From complete strangers, to my kids and my husband, so much love was returned to me. It might sound goofy, but whenever my daughter hugged me, she said she was recharging my superpowers to fight the cancer. I also learned how to focus on the things I can control. Cancer lets you know what you’re capable of, and I feel like I can do anything now. It has been an empowering experience, and many blessings have come my way.”