In February 2009, just months after her wedding and shortly before her 24th birthday, Burke was diagnosed with Stage I HER2-positive and estrogen positive breast cancer. The diagnosis came three months after she found a lump in her breast that was at first thought to be a benign (noncancerous) tumor called a fibroadenoma.
Defying a radiologist's advice to watch it and wait two years, she tried to get a mammogram but her insurance wouldnâ€™t cover it due to her age. Worried about what might be growing inside her, Burke decided to have a lumpectomy, hoping to find peace after the lump was removed. One week later, she learned it was cancerous.
Unsure why she had cancer at such a young age, she underwent genetic testing and met with a genetic counselor to see if she had the inherited BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes (breast cancer susceptibility gene 1 and 2) that often cause breast cancer at early ages. The results were negative.
â€œWho knows what caused the cancer,â€ Burke said. â€œWhatever it was â€“ now that Iâ€™m a survivor â€“ I believe itâ€™s my duty to share my story with others, even if itâ€™s not specifically about breast cancer, but just about being your own advocate. Once you know the information, stick to any decision you make. If I had listened to the radiologist who first found the tumor, I wouldnâ€™t be here today.â€
Her treatment consisted of four rounds of chemotherapy, along with Herceptin â€“ a drug that targets the specific HER2 gene of this type of breast cancer. At her age, and with this type of breast cancer, there was a 90 percent chance of recurrence.
Chemotherapy ended on June 25, 2009, but her worry wasnâ€™t over. â€œThe last round of chemotherapy was emotional, because the whole time you are going through chemo, you know that you are doing everything you can to kill the cancer,â€ Burke says. â€œBut when youâ€™re done, you start thinking, â€˜What if it comes back?â€™â€
After chemotherapy, Burke had a double mastectomy with immediate reconstruction. â€œI was scared, wondering what my breasts were going to be like. But, I wanted to have kids. And I wanted to live to be 90, and this was the path I needed to take to get there.â€
A few days before surgery, she participated in the Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure in Portland. â€œSeeing everyone in their pink [survivor] shirts was motivation, reminding me that breast cancer wasnâ€™t tragic and that I could do it.â€
To ensure the cancer wonâ€™t come back, Burke continues to take Tamoxifen, a drug that blocks the effects of estrogen in the breast, for three more years. Burke canâ€™t have children while sheâ€™s on Tamoxifen, but she finds ways to overcome her frustration with a cancer-free goal in mind. One day, she says, she hopes to be a healthy mother, who will be around for many years to see her family grow.
Burke finds support and understanding through the young survivor group she started earlier this year. During her treatment, she realized that there was no place to talk about the physical and emotional side effects unique to her age, so she formed a group dedicated to women in their 20s, 30s and 40s. The group meets once every other week; those who participate, she says, find comfort in sharing with those their own age who understand what each other are going through.
Her family is another great source of support. While going through treatment, Burke adopted her grandmotherâ€™s fight-mode mentality, wanting to make her proud. Her grandmother fought leukemia for five years but passed two months before Burkeâ€™s own cancer diagnosis. Burke admired her grandmotherâ€™s determination and ability to set goals to make it from one day to the next.
After fighting and winning her own cancer battle, Burke continues to set goals, including running a 5K in Komen Oregonâ€™s Eugene Race for the Cure this October. Last month, she walked a half-marathon with her mom, two years to the day from her last round of chemotherapy. She would also like to have children within the next five years.
As medical assistant to Dr. Peter Kovach and Dr. John Caton, the oncologist who oversaw her treatment, Burke feels like her job at WVCI was meant for her. â€œI love my job. I can relate to patients on a level that not everyone can; Iâ€™ve gone through it [cancer] personally, along with family â€“ my grandmother and now my husbandâ€™s grandmother. When I ask patients how they are doing, I also ask family, because this disease is a family disease and it can be just as hard on a family member.â€
To further spread her message about early detection, she speaks to sororities at the University of Oregon and plans to visit high schools, as well.
Burke is living proof that cancer has no bounds. But through early detection, willpower, setting goals and the support of family and friends, Burke continues to overcome obstacles and you can, too.
Listen to Burke talk about her story with KMTR last year here.