Family, friends and even work help mom through breast cancer

Kristen Vitale and Dr. Olopade

Kristen Vitale discovered a lump in her breast in late 2015. She felt some random pain and noticed something odd near her chest wall. Vitale didn't think it was cancer, but she knew it wasn't normal and that she should get it checked.

A mammogram at a nearby west suburban hospital revealed breast cancer. Like many women, her first response was, as she put it, “shock, awe, fear — all those things.”

She was 44.

“I’m married. I have two children. I work full time, and I’m pretty active,” she said. “So, one of my first thoughts was, ‘I don’t have time for this.’”

Fortunately, it was caught early. Nora Jaskowiak, MD, surgical head of the University of Chicago Breast Center, deftly removed the tumor. She also recommended a medical oncologist to help Vitale battle the disease. Funmi Olopade, MD, is a breast cancer specialist at the UChicago Medicine and a leading authority on cancer risk assessment and individualized treatments.

They met on New Year’s Eve 2015 and instantly connected.

“Dr. Olopade was a wonderful spirit from our first meeting to the end of treatment,” Vitale said. “She explained the risks and benefits, plus any potential side effects of treatment, which can be quite serious. She knew how to help me choose a treatment path and explained what I would ultimately go through.”

Thanks to Olopade and her team, Vitale’s treatment went smoothly.

Outside of the hospital, however, she needed help from those who cared about her. Vitale found a lot of strength in her family, which is crucial to a patient’s ability to fight the disease.

“It’s really important to have a support network,” she said. “My husband came to treatments with me. He helped with the kids and did chores around the house. And my kids, 9 and 11 at the time, were very positive throughout the whole adventure.”

Friends also came to her rescue.

“When your family, including the kids, is expected to do a lot more — chores around the house and hugging me a little more than they did before — they need some relief, too. Cancer has a huge impact on your family. Just having friends around, asking me how they can help or sometimes just listening, makes a difference.”

One day we are going to find a cure for breast cancer. I want that day to come very soon.

Even work helped. In fact, it became a pleasant distraction.

“I took my work to clinic visits,” said Vitale, who is in banking. “There’s a lot of downtime during treatment, so I could work undisturbed, more so than in the office. I learned better time management. Things were getting done, and it encouraged me. I knew I would be ready and happy in the work I was coming back to.”

Vitale was treated with chemotherapy and a drug that blocked the estrogen that was fueling her cancer.

“It worked. Kristen is cancer-free, healthy, back at work,” Olopade said. “She beat cancer, and her life goes on.”

Meanwhile, Olopade and her colleagues keep looking for better drugs to make cancer treatment more precise. That’s one of the reasons she founded UChicago Medicine’s Cancer Risk Clinic in 1992 — one of the first efforts in the country to combine the new science of genetic testing with clinical cancer care.

“We can’t cure every cancer, but we have come a long way,” she said. “We are making it a more treatable disease, and our patients have been a huge part of any successes.

“One day we are going to find a cure for breast cancer. I want that day to come very soon.”

Cancer Can't Compete

Cancer survivor Anthony Rizzo is teaming up with the Chicago Tribune, along with the Anthony Rizzo Family Foundation, Mariano’s and the University of Chicago Medicine, in a campaign to raise money for cancer research and support for families as they fight cancer together.

Cancer Can't Compete
Olufunmilayo Olopade, MD, and Tara Gehring, RN

Breast Cancer Care

Our team represents expertise across the spectrum of breast cancer care: breast imaging, breast surgery, medical and radiation oncology, plastic and reconstructive surgery, lymphedema treatment, clinical genetics, pathology and nursing. Patients receive a comprehensive treatment plan that optimizes chances of their survival and quality of life.

Learn more about UChicago Medicine breast cancer care.