The word “cancer” carries with it an ominous cloud that, if you allow it, rains down on anyone it hovers over. But, “Rain rain, go away,” is what Dawn Steber may have said.
Steber’s five-year battle with breast cancer began in November 2005, at the young age of 32, when she discovered a lump in her left breast through self-examination. After undergoing radiation treatment, a few rounds of chemotherapy and a double mastectomy with reconstructive surgery, the gloomy skies began to lighten up. Steber’s surgeon, Upstate Medical Center’s Dr. Kara Kort, was cautiously optimistic that they had removed all the cancer post the bilateral mastectomy.
Steber had an aversion to dubbing someone a “survivor” too soon, a sentiment that is still shared by her sister, DeDe Milewitz. It stems from the day, one year after being cancer free, when Steber learned the cancer had returned as a stage 4, metastasizing to her sternum.
The introduction to Steber’s story is merely a facet of the metaphorical second book in a three-part series of the lives of a Baldwinsville mother and her two daughters as they each battle breast cancer.
It was 1985 when Steber and Milewitz’s mother, then 40-year-old Judy Smith, found a lump on her breast. After a routine biopsy, Smith was told that it was cancerous.
Upon deciding with her doctor that a lumpectomy and eventually a mastectomy with reconstructive surgery was the best course to be taken, Smith is now considered to be a 27-year survivor.
Skipping ahead to the middle of “book two,” Steber’s story, the plot begins to thicken as her older sister, Milewitz, is diagnosed with stage 2 breast cancer in September 2010.
The third of the Smith women to hear the sentence, “The lump is cancerous,” fought the beast head on, courageously and instantaneously. “When I found out I had breast cancer, I had no decisions to make,” Milewitz said. “There are so many questions, but for me, my sister had already been there.”
Throughout her sister’s treatment, Milewitz inevitably developed a close relationship with Dr. Kort and Dr. Sheila Lemke, thus resulting in the unwavering certainty that came with choosing them as her own doctors.
As far as handling the news that her oldest daughter has developed the disease that she once battled, in the midst of her youngest daughters’s fight, Smith described the situation as a Catch-22.
“It was a lot less stressful in one sense because she knew what to expect. On the other hand it was difficult because … she still had cancer,” Smith said. “So, it was like a two-headed penny.”
It was only after Milewitz was diagnosed that the sisters decided to undergo the BRCA genetic testing, a test that looks for a possible mutation of a tumor suppressant gene that has been linked to hereditary breast and ovarian cancer. Despite having a grandmother, aunt, cousin and mother who have all been affected by breast or ovarian cancer, both Milewitz and Steber’s results were negative.
“That’s once again why research is so important,” Milewitz said. “Because maybe there is another gene. We don’t know.”
In November of 2010, after five years of countless types of chemotherapy, Dr. Lemke delivered the news that they had run out of effective treatment options for Steber.
“That was hard because you know it’s nearing the end. It was Christmastime,” Smith said. “We tried everything they had. That was devastating.”
But Steber’s unwavering optimism and Dr. Lemke’s steadfast resolve led them to a hopeful option in January 2011: a new chemotherapy treatment recently out of clinical trial called Eribulin.
Incredibly, the drug seemed to work. “It was like a Christmas miracle for five months,” Smith said. “She was functioning, she was awake, she could drive … she enjoyed her son while on Eribulin,” Milewitz added.
But staying true to its monstrous form, the breast cancer reared its ugly head and caught up to both the Eribulin and Steber’s immune system once again. On May 30, 2011, 37-year-old Dawn Steber lost her battle with breast cancer. She is survived by her now 9-year-old son, Vincent, and loving husband, Tom.
At the bittersweet mention of those final five months, Milewitz and Smith stressed the importance of raising research dollars. They explained that 100 percent of the profit raised by the Carol M. Baldwin Breast Cancer Research Fund is funneled directly into Upstate’s Breast Cancer Research Center, the same center that financially supported Dr. Lemke’s studies of Eribulin which ultimately provided Steber’s family with the Christmas miracle for which they will forever be grateful.
To honor the memory of Dawn Steber, Milewitz, Smith and more than 80 family members and friends will participate in the Baldwin race, A Run for THEIR Life, to be held on Sunday, Oct. 14.
The team’s moniker for the run, “The Rise of Dawn,” comes from a poem written by a family friend’s daughter, a fifth-grader at the time, who chose Steber as the subject for a school project honoring someone she thought was courageous. The logo is formed by Steber and her son’s handprints creating the rising sun over “The Rise of Dawn,” written in her son’s handwriting.
The third “book” to the Smith women’s trilogy, DeDe Miliwetz’s, has only just begun. Milewitz will continue to take Tamoxifen (a drug used to treat and prevent breast cancer recurrence) daily until 2015.
Nevertheless, she will continue to fill the imaginary pages of her book with hope, love and strength, wrapped in a beautifully tied pink bow.
Friends and loved ones of Steber encompass the courage and optimism that was ever present in her by fighting for a cure for the cancer that took the life of one its strongest opponents.
Through the rainy days, the memory of Dawn rises.