Change Agent

Elyse Eckart’s journey to The University of New Mexico Comprehensive Cancer Center began, in a sense, with a journey home.

Eckart and her family had been living in California when she and her wife made the decision to come back to Albuquerque.

“Our families are here, and we were missing our extended families and we had small kids,” she said. “We were just tired of living the California life.”

After returning home and finding work as an attorney here, Eckart one day felt a lump in her breast and sought out her primary care physician. 

“She agreed that something didn’t feel quite right and sent me along for a biopsy,” Eckart said. “And the whole time everyone was like, ‘Oh, it’s nothing. You’re so young.’ Once I got the diagnosis, I spent some time talking to various people in my circle who worked at both the UNM Hospital and at the Cancer Center and I decided I wanted to be at the teaching hospital at UNM.”

Eckart’s original diagnosis, from another care provider, was hormone-positive invasive ductal carcinoma, a form of breast cancer with a relatively high survivability rate.

“When I switched to UNM, they found an additional tumor and ran biopsies on both and found it was metaplastic, which is a really rare and aggressive form of breast cancer,” Eckart said.

She said that further diagnoses revealed the tumors to be rarer still, with one falling into the triple-negative category, meaning it was negative for estrogen and progesterone receptors as well as for the HER2/neu protein, and the other tumor was hormone positive.

“It was actually a really good thing I ended up at UNM to get a more specific diagnosis,” Eckart said. “In addition to that, my oncologist had me go out to consult with an oncologist at MD Anderson in Houston, because it was a rare cancer and she wanted to make sure the treatment plan she was preparing was blessed by experts in that cancer.”

As an attorney, Eckart is accustomed to researching facts and evidence to answer questions. But with such a rare form of cancer, information was limited and difficult to access. Getting a diagnosis was frightening enough, but trying to find up-to-date information made it more uncertain.

“I think what’s also really scary is it’s hard to find information on it, because it’s really rare,” she said.

“A lot of studies you find don’t talk about the kind of cancer I have and the information that is out there tends to be really dated and is probably a lot scarier than what the actual statistics are today.”

Eckart said she also understands that the nature of statistical studies doesn’t really answer the key questions most individual patients have.

“Stats only relate to the population, not the individual,” she said. “That was a really hard part for me. I just wanted to know what was going to happen to me, and nobody can tell you that.”

In September 2017, Eckart underwent surgery to remove the tumor from her breast, which was followed by six months of chemotherapy and then another five weeks of radiation.

The treatments were difficult and talking with her young children about it was a challenge.

“We had serious conversations about what we would tell the kids and how much we would tell them, and ultimately we decided to be as honest as we could without giving them any information they didn’t need or that would scare them unnecessarily,” she said. “We were very factual with them. We told them I had something called cancer and that meant my cells weren’t acting the way they were supposed to and the doctors would have to give me a bunch of medication to try to get those cells to behave right.

“After that, we stuck to literal facts about how that would impact them: ‘Here are the days I’m going to be sick. Here are the days you’re not going to be able to climb on me.’ For my daughter, the worst part was losing my hair. I think it was a really visible symbol to her that I was sick.”

The conversations never veered into mortality and survivability and Eckart said she was fortunate to receive care from the faculty at the UNM Comprehensive Cancer Center.

Her surgery was performed by Stephanie Fine, MD, and her treatments were coordinated by Zoneddy Dayao, MD. Eckart said the doctors helped explain the complicated terms and procedures to her and helped walk her through the year-long process.

“Dr. Fine literally sat down and drew me pictures,” she said. “When you’re first diagnosed you don’t even know what the jargon is or any of the words people are throwing at you and you have to make pretty quick decisions. Dr. Fine was just amazing at helping me make those decisions. Dr. Dayao was my medical oncologist. She really helped guide chemo and my overall treatment path. She is definitely who I see as the quarterback of my team.”

Eckart said the team really helped her understand the decisions she was making and what their recommendations were and why.

“I never felt like I didn’t have a say but I also felt very informed as to what they thought was the best path,” she said. “They were all really willing to spend time with me to talk through all the ins and outs of a pretty complex process.”

In addition to her treatments, Eckart participated in a clinical trial for a chemotherapy drug. She also has been undergoing hormone therapy, which will end in about a year.

Since her surgery, Eckart has remained cancer-free.

“I have no evidence of disease,” she said. “I think the further out I get from my treatment, the less likely it will be that it returns, but nobody ever says, ‘Oh, you’re cured.’”

Eckart said she has been changed by the experience.

“I think that to some extent, there’s a deep existential transformation that happens when you have any kind of brush with something that can kill you,” she said. “I’ll never say I’m grateful for cancer. It’s not a fun journey, and I wouldn’t wish it on anyone. But I also think it was a big time for personal growth.”

She’s started a new job as a legal counsel for Dell Technologies, working from home. She’s also taken on new physical challenges, going skiing and hiking and doing things she probably would have avoided were it not for her cancer diagnosis.

“The Lobo Cancer Challenge is a great example of that,” she said. “I’ve never been a super athlete but I’m recognizing it’s important to get up and get moving and be active and not worrying about self-image or looking silly.”

Eckart joined the challenge in July 2018 after a meeting with Dayao on her survival plan, following treatment. One of the recommendations was staying active and the event was ramping up and soliciting teams. Eckart joined and dubbed her team “Riders for Racks.” They started with a 25-mile ride and Eckart said she’s considering running the 5K race.

 During last year’s virtual event, the team rode 25 miles on the day of the challenge, but Eckart said she got her kids involved and did a hike with them earlier in the month.

Though the team’s nomenclature is inspired by Eckart’s experiences with cancer, she raises funds for the Cancer Center’s Patient Assistance Fund.

Eckart was fortunate to have good insurance that covered her treatment and she wants to do her part to make sure every New Mexican has access to such treatments. She also said that it’s important to support UNM and its position as a social safety net for so many people.

“I think being a cancer patient with relatively curable, lower-stage cancer, you get this ‘Why me?’ feeling, Eckart said. “But on the other hand, you also have what I would term as survivor’s guilt: ‘Why did I get cancer in first place?’ but also, ‘Why am I lucky enough to have something that is relatively manageable, and so far, I’m having a really good outcome when so many people don’t?’

“For me, the other part is if I had to have cancer I’m really glad to have had insurance that I had and I’m really glad to have had access to the Cancer Center and I have a deep moral obligation to pay that forward as much as I can.”