Breast Cancer Patient is a One Woman Show – In More Ways Than One

“The jig is up.”

At least, that’s what Christine Ernst thought as she waited for the mammogram technician to deliver the bad news that she knew was coming. What Ernst didn’t know was what exactly that bad news would be, but eventually it became clear: she had stage II HER2-positive breast cancer, a subtype of breast cancer that affects about 20 percent of breast cancer patients.

Former breast cancer patient Ernst and her daughter Marney at Marney's college graduation in 2016.
Ernst and her daughter, Marney, at Marney’s college graduation in 2016.

That was March 2001, months after Ernst found a lump in her right breast while she was showering. She had convinced herself that it was a cyst; at the time she was only 34 with no history of breast cancer in her family, so she thought little of its appearance. She made an appointment to see a doctor, but the winter holidays threw a wrench in those plans. Finally, she made it to her mammogram appointment — “I had an uneasy feeling,” she says — and suddenly, she was met with a breast cancer diagnosis.

“It was stunning and scary, and huge news,” she says.

Ernst, a single mom of then- 6-year-old daughter Marney quickly decided to undergo a combination of treatments: chemotherapy, radiation, and a mastectomy. Her oncologist at the Cape Cod hospital where she was treated also gave her a list of clinical trials, including a trial offered through Dana-Farber for patients with HER2-positive breast cancer. The trial’s goal was to test how effective the drug trastuzumab (Herceptin), in combination with standard adjuvant chemotherapy, could be in preventing patients’ cancer from returning.

Herceptin is now the most common medication used to combat recurrence of HER2-positive breast cancer. Still, in 2001, Ernst still faced a lot of unknowns in her cancer journey. In considering whether or not to join the clinical trial, she had to weigh the possibility of her cancer’s recurrence against potential side effects of the treatment, such as heart damage. Eventually, she did decide to enroll – thanks to an encouraging nurse at Dana-Farber who happened to pick up the phone when Ernst, not knowing who to talk to, called the main Dana-Farber phone number for more information on the trial.

Ernst and her daughter in 2001, the year she was diagnosed with breast cancer.
Ernst and her daughter in 2001, the year she was diagnosed with breast cancer.

“I was between a rock and a hard place, but it was as if the sun came out,” Ernst recalls.

She finished the trial in two years’ time, and 15 years later, she remains cancer-free. And there was more for her to be happy about: Ernst, who always wanted to be a writer, credits her diagnosis with giving her something important to write about — and laugh about. “Which was really [expletive] up!” she laughs.

That something important became a play called “Reconstruction: Or How I Learned to Pay Attention,” which chronicles how Ernst and her daughter navigated her cancer experience. “I wrote the play that I needed to read when I was diagnosed,” says Ernst, who had previously inhaled every bit of literature that she could about breast cancer, but felt that everything she read was for women older than her. The twosome performed “Reconstruction” 50 times throughout New England; since then, Ernst has written two more plays and started writing and performing in an annual one-woman show called “Fat A– Cancer B—-” (a name she laughingly recalls someone calling her once).

Like many cancer patients, Ernst says she feels compelled to pay it forward and to tell her story – not just the story of her diagnosis and treatment, but all of the other chapters, too. She is proud, and grateful, to have been part of a clinical trial that paved the way for so many patients with HER2-positive breast cancer.

“I feel very fortunate that I had the opportunity to be part of a clinical trial that I believe saved my life, but also connected me to a beautiful community that enriches my life,” she says.

Learn more about treatment for breast cancer at the Susan F. Smith Center for Women’s Cancers at Dana-Farber.

Ernst will be a special guest at Laughing for a Cure, a fundraiser helmed by Susan Mendoza Friedman of the Friends of Dana-Farber for ovarian and breast cancer research at Dana-Farber.