‘Stage 4 Needs More’: Mom With Cancer’s Fierce Fight For Research | Riverhead, NY
community corner ‘Stage 4 Needs More’: Mom With Cancer’s Fierce Fight For Research “I’ve got a life. Fund the research so I can keep living my life. I don’t care about pink parties or pink feather boas. Pink is not a cure.” By Lisa Finn, Patch Staff Oct 7, 2019 3:15 am ET | Updated Oct 7, 2019 2:04 pm “Stage 4 needs more,” said Kerri Stromski, a beloved kindergarten teacher who is living with breast cancer and fighting to spotlight the need for research. Patch interviewed Stromski at home with her husband Rob and children Madison, Morgan, and Quinn. (Patch/Lisa Finn) JAMESPORT, NY – Step inside Keri Lynn Stromski’s Jamesport home and see a home bursting with life, with family, with love. Amid the Halloween and autumn decorations are framed and mounted words of affirmation: “Simplify.” “Family.” “Peace.”
Stromski, a kindergarten teacher spent Friday with her tiny charges at Aquebogue Elementary School, making apple sauce and spreading magic as she took off her shoes and acted like Johnny Appleseed, much to the delight of her kinders. She is a busy working mom, juggling her kids’ schedules and advocating for her students — and she is also living with Stage 4 metastatic breast cancer.
Metastatic cancer means the cancer has spread beyond the breast and lymph nodes to other organs in the body.
At Stromski’s house, the fall is in full swing as her husband Rob takes their son Quinn to practice while their girls Morgan and Madison do homework and help from their mom in the kitchen. It’s a busy, rich, full life, a family so intertwined in love they tell each other’s stories and stop to give their mom a hug — just because.
Despite her diagnosis, it’s a blessed life, and Stromski is grateful.
But October isn’t just a month for harvest bounty, for Halloween and decorations and sports and homework. It’s also the month when the nation goes pink for Breast Cancer Awareness Month — “Pinktober,” a time Stromski has dubbed “the worst month of the year.”
October, when the “pink-washing” and rah-rah and hoopla for “Save the Ta-Tas,” the pink ribbons, balloons and goodie bags of pink plastic beads, the proliferation of pink cocktails, parties and empty pink promises have Stromski literally seeing red.
“Pink is not a cure,” she said.
(Courtesy Keri Stromski) Stromski was diagnosed with Stage 4 breast cancer in 2016 . Today, alongside her children’s homework assignments, huge boxes filled with bottles of pills — she takes about 70 every single day —and bags of Chinese herbs sit on the kitchen table, a tangible testament to a woman who’s gone head-to-head with cancer, arming herself with knowledge, facts and, as her T-shirt says, facing the foe with “gratitude, grace and grit.”
The large polls and herbs in the kitchen tell the story of a woman whose inner determination, courage, and faith have given her tools needed to shine a light on Stage 4 cancer and the research that’s so desperately needed to save lives.
Chinese herbs sit on Keri Stromski’s table. (Patch/Lisa Finn) Because, make no mistake about it: Despite the pink haze and hysteria of October, it’s research that will make the difference, Stromski has said often in her blog, ” Faith Over Fear .”
“Mammograms do not save lives. They are not a treatment, but a diagnostic tool,” Stromski said. “Get your mammograms, and if you have dense breasts, ask for a sonogram. Thermography is also an option.”
Research saves lives, she said. And therein, she said, lies her frustration with the Susan G. Komen for the Cure organization; her mission is to flip the switch on where money raised is allocated, with a much higher percentage in the future dedicated to Stage 4 cancer.
Because while there is no cure for cancer, she said, research can make the disease chronic, so that those with the disease can live long lives making memories with their families.
Rather than succumb to doubt and crippling fear since her diagnosis, she’s faced her foe with positivity and a thirst for life-saving knowledge.
At first, stunning news made believers even among those with the hardest of hearts: Stromski was found to be NED, with no evidence of disease and in complete remission.
(Keri Stromski) Stromski, 46, first found a lump in her breast while in the shower and then made an appointment to see her gynecologist, who felt two more lumps and sent her for testing. She had her breast and lymph nodes biopsied on November 15, 2016.
“My birthday was the 16th and I got the call telling me it was cancer on the 17th. We went and had a PET scan at the end of November and they saw a spot in my sacrum. On my daughter’s birthday on the 15th I had a spinal biopsy. On the 21st of December I was told it was cancer that had metastasized and was terminal — and I started treatment immediately,” she said.
The news was devastating, Stromski said.
“We were in shock. I kept saying, ‘This isn’t my story’. All I could think of was my children and husband and family.”
From the first, she embraced not only traditional treatment but other avenues of hope.
“I received an email from my friend, Maggie. I had her son in class the year before. She owns the Golden Earthworm . She was the first person to give me hope. She told me to go totally organic, change my household products, juice, fast, and to see two specialists she recommended,” Stromski said previously.
Next, she met Debbie Falborn and Bridget LeRoy of Chaga Island , who gave her Chaga mushrooms to make tea. She connected with Paula DiDonato at The Giving Room in Southold — who has since become a beloved friend — and learned all about juicing. Danielle DeLongis at Peaceful Scorpion Wellness began a regime of reflexology and reiki, she said.
(Keri Stromski) Friends then introduced her to a Chinese herbalist, whom she affectionately calls “Snuffy,”; she now takes the herbs daily, Stromski said.
Almost three years later, she recently began a new treatment regime to attack the cancer in her liver, spine, breast and hips — a treatment so strong and toxic nurses have to wear gloves to administer it — it’s called “the big guns.”
Stromski believes Stage 4 cancer needs greater funding. “So much of the research goes to the lesser stages, because the average survival rate of metastatic breast cancer is so low. That needs to change,” she said.
In her blog, Stromski wrote about her fervent mission: “There is so much education that needs to be done about this month and how pink is not a cure . . . We are all well aware that 116 women and men die every day from Stage 4 breast cancer. How about we spend money to cure or make it a chronic disease? Even the football teams get in on the act, with pink jerseys and goat yoga. How about every football player and team saves the money on the pink crap and goats and donates 2% to Stage 4 research? Is it that people want to look like they care and are helping — or do they really want to make difference?”
(Keri Stromski) She added: “Cure Stage 4, or make it chronic, and everyone benefits. Keep your pink tutus and boxing gloves and goats and specialty drinks and pink shirts saying ‘Save the Tatas.’ And save our lives . . . I seriously need to take deep breaths despite the liver pain every time I see people in pink and tiaras and throwing parties. How did breast cancer become a party? All month long, Stage 4 breast cancer patients are assaulted by pink everywhere. You cannot get a mental break and pink pops up all over and vomits all over you. People say, ‘You’re my hero,’ ‘God gives battles to the strongest,’ “You’ve got this!’ While oncologists are like, ‘We still have some options left before you die.'”
Stromski implores those that try to make cancer seem fun — to just stop. All too often, the attitude is, “Hey! At least you get new boobs!” she wrote. “Actually, mine were never able to be amputated because it was ‘too late’ for me. I would gladly amputate my breasts to be able to live and see my children grow up.”
It’s critical, Stromski said, to speak the truth. “Words matter,” she said. Breasts are “amputated.”
“‘Died from complications from breast cancer’ means ‘murdered by metastatic breast cancer’. But you go and keep on making it light and breezy while men and women drop like flies around us,” she said.
(Courtesy of Rob Stromski) Stromski recently headed to New York City to protest with METAvivor at the Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure Event.
“19 percent goes to Stage 4 research. 50 percent goes to education and awareness — such as runs, and telling people to get mammograms. The rest goes to salaries,” she said.
The Susan G. Komen for the Cure organization did not immediately respond to an email request for comment.
The past weeks have been marked by the devastating loss of friends Stromski loved, friends who also had Stage 4; one leaves behind a young son with Down syndrome.
But rather than give in to grief and despair, Stromski’s resolve has grown stronger as she becomes an even more fierce warrior in the fight to secure funding for critical research. She has become a voice for the friends she will love forever.
(Keri Stromski) Always a teacher, Stromski is generous with the knowledge she’s gained over the past three years.
There are books that have been invaluable, she said, including ” Radical Remission ,” by Kelly A. Turner, ” Herbal Medicine Healing And Cancer ,” by Donald Yance and Arlene Valentine — Yance has become a lifeline, with an extensive regime that Stomski follows faithfully. Other books include ” Adaptogens in Medical Herbalism ,” also by Yance, and ” Hope Never Dies ,” by Rick Shapiro. She has also turned to The Annie Appleseed Project , to help find natural alternatives and ways to keep healthy, as well at ” The Heal Documentary ,” and ” The Truth About Cancer ” series.
The search for answers led to finding cherished friends also in the ring fighting back at their Stage 4 diagnoses. “At first, I didn’t do friend requests. People were all dying, all the time. It was a death knell on those message boards,” she said.
Eventually she found the friends who became her champions, confidantes, soul sisters.
She shared her knowledge with them, including introducing them to her holistic savior “Snuffy,” who provides what she believes are live-saving herbs; Stromski first learned about him through a student’s mother. She’s also seen a healer whom she calls Madame Swoosh, tried reiki and seen a medium.
When first diagnosed with Stage 4, Stromski said, “It’s like a tornado. You hear things like ‘Chemo will kill you,’ ‘Chemo will save you.'”
Eventually, she said, a path of treatment is determined. Her own father has had five primary cancers and today, is a strong survivor.
(Keri Stromski) Stromski discussed the future of cancer research and said she believes genetic issues eventually will be spotlighted; anyone diagnosed, she said, should have a genetic profile done immediately.
After treatment at the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, Stromski said she found inspiration and hope close to home with Dr. Alison Stopek at Stony Brook University Hospital.
“Her bio said she likes to work with Stage 4 patients, get to know their families,” she said. “She told me, ‘Even if you don’t choose me, feel free to come back and talk to me. I’ve got patients that have lived 10 years. There are new drugs coming down the pike all the time.’ That’s how I ended up with Dr. Stopek. Stony Brook is top notch, in my opinion.”
Still, there have been days wracked with doubt.
But her husband Rob — her forever rock and champion — her children, her family, and a network of supporters that rally both at the Riverhead Central School District, throughout the community, and across the world, have stood firmly by her side.
Along with traditional treatment, Stromski seeks help and hope through “Snuffy,” with Donnie Yance’s regime, with the inspiration of Annie Appleseed and the others who’ve paved the way for her current path.
(Keri Stromski) Along the way, Stromski has met other “thrivers” living with metastatic breast cancer for years, including Stephanie Seban, Nalie Augustin, Terlisa Shepherd and Brittney Beadle.
Last summer, after she was no longer NED and that she needed a port and Taxol, she turned to Yance and his Mederi Center , which presents a whole new approach to “wholistic health and healing,” as well.
“Every single cancer is different,” Stromski said. “There’s never going to be a cure for cancer. But research is really important. Research is saving my life right now.”
Chemo may deplete, but the key is making the body strong enough to survive. “As long as you’re stronger than the cancer, you will keep living,” Stromski said.
Hope, inspiration, and a steadfast certainty in a positive outcome mean everything, Stromski said.
“People don’t understand that words can be magic — or words can be death. That first doctor said I had only a year. When she said that, God pulled me out of my body. I saw Rob’s shocked face and my parents crying. I just heard, ‘That’s not my story. This is not my story.'”
(Keri Stromski) That same approach can be used to tackle any adversity in life, Stromski said. “If you wake up and say, ‘It’s going to be a sucky day today, it’s going to be a sucky day. If you wake up and say, ‘Thank you, God, I’m alive. I’m going to make today the best day ever,’ your cells are going to listen.”
Some patients, when told they are Stage 4, “go home and wait to die.”
But that, Stromski said, is not her story. That’s why she took to posting on social media and in her blog, to share her experience with others and be transparent.
“Some people look at you as though you’re a dead man walking,” she said. “I’m like, ‘Nope, I’m going to be fine.’ Everyone time you tell someone you’re Stage 4, they say, ‘I’m sorry.’ Don’t say ‘I’m sorry.'”
Even recently, when Stromski was rushed to the hospital with pain so severe she thought the worst, she was told it could be a pulmonary embolism, a gall bladder, or cancer on her liver worsening, she persevered — and was back teaching in her classroom in a heartbeat.
Also buoying her spirits, Stromski said, is the love of the many that are cheering in her corner.
Recently, a film crew taped her and her family for a piece about Yance, so that his work and legacy will live on. She was chosen because of her extraordinary story — still teaching kindergartners while undergoing rigorous chemo for Stage 4.
(Patch/Lisa Finn) A yard sale fundraiser hosted by Kait’s Angels, a nonprofit organized in memory of Kaitlyn Doorhy, who died while away at college, raised $7,800. Although the proceeds were originally meant to benefit both Stromski and Nick Coutts, a young man badly injured in a crash, Coutts donated half of his share of the proceeds to help Stromski, who received a check for a total of $6,100 — with additional donations included — from Darla Doorhy of Kait’s Angels on Friday.
(Patch/Lisa Finn) It’s that outpouring of love that affords hope, Stromski said.
As does a GoFundMe created by Justin Cobis, “Riverhead Run IV More,” to benefit Stromski. Run IV More takes place October 22 at Indian Island. Everyone is welcome to cheer on the Riverhead High School girls cross county team run their race as they support their teammate, Madison, Stromski’s daughter.
The funds raised are needed, she said, with herbs and alternative treatments costly; so expensive that her children’s college funds have been dedicated to saving their mother’s life.
Others have inspired, including Chris Wark, the “Mick Jagger of the Annie Appleseed world,” Stromski said; Wark beat Stage 3 colon cancer and told Stromski that someday, she’d be the person being interviewed about her amazing story; the pair did a Facebook video together.
When asked how she finds the sheer energy to juggle a busy life as a mother, wife and kindergarten teacher while having Stage 4 cancer, Stromski said, “When you’re first diagnosed, you feel like, ‘What’s going on?’ The second year, you’ve learned more. By the third year, you think, ‘I’m still here. Maybe I’m still here so I can shine a light on what’s going on.'”
And shine a light she does, in a blog and on social media, sharing her experiences with the skills of the kindergarten teacher she is, breaking down medical procedures and terms into words people can understand.
Even the protest with METAvivor, which wasn’t easy, as many there were friends of women who had just died, was something Stromski knew she had to do; she heard in a “whisper” that it was where she was meant to be.
“With Stage 4, by the time women learn enough to get angry, they die,” she said. “They pick up the torch and start to run, then they drop it and the next woman picks it up.”
As those diagnosed with Stage 4 live longer, “We get angry. Stage 4 is the Pink Elephant in the corner. The lesser stages don’t want to look at us. We scare people. They think, ‘We don’t want to be like her.”
But statistics indicated that 30 percent of those diagnosed in early stages will ultimately end up at Stage 4, and that’s why research is critical, she said. “Many think they’re cured but they still have the cancer inside of them,” Stromski said.
With 116 dying every day of breast cancer, including men, and 40,000 dying every year, more needs to be done, she said.
Men, she said, are often ashamed to talk about breast cancer because it’s been sexualized.
To those newly diagnosed, Stromski would offer these words: “There’s always hope. It doesn’t matter what you’re told. You just need hope and faith the size of a mustard seed.”
And she said, “Advocate for yourself. Stop with the pink. Buying pink merchandise and wearing pink isn’t going to cure cancer. Funding research is going to cure cancer or make it a chronic condition.”
Stage 4, Stromski said, desperately needs more. In the whole month of Pinktober, she said, one day, and one day only, October 13, is dedicated to focusing on Stage 4. “We deserve more than one day. We deserve all year until there’s a cure.”
Looking around the room at her beautiful children, her loving husband, Stromski said, “I’ve got a life. Fund the research so I can keep living my life. I don’t care about pink parties or pink feather boas. I care about research. Don’t be afraid to say metastatic. Pink is not a cure. Don’t ignore Stage 4.”
Currently, Stromski just began a notoriously toxic new chemo called “the red devil.” In her trademark positive fashion, she calls it “the scarlet savior.”
When asked how she keeps going, despite the exhaustion and fear, the amazing challenges before her, Stromski said. “Faith. Rob. And the kids. That’s it. How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.”
Some nights, she admits, it’s overwhelming, and she sits and cries as she takes the many, many pills. That’s where meditation, yoga, breathing, and the love of friends, who have created a meal train, and others who drop off juices and chaga tea, help see her through. “Stay where your feet are,” she said.
Stromski said she wants to be a symbol of hope to others. “The average lifespan after being diagnosed with Stage 4 is two to three years. It was really hard, when I was first diagnosed, to find women who were beating those odds. Now I’m becoming one of them. That’s why I want my story out there. Because someone today is being told they’re Stage 4 — and they can see that for me, it’s going on three years and I’m still teaching kindergarten.”
Even in the midst of chemo and an endless sea of pills and herbs, Stromski is out with her family; most recently, on college visits with her daughter. “Life is for living,” she said.
Stromski said while she’d do anything, go back in a heartbeat to the time before her diagnosis, there have been moments of beauty. The friendships born, the meal train, the gifts and donations, the deeper relationship with God, the waking up and, instead of thinking about trivial nonsense, saying, “I love my husband and my kids and I want to spend the rest of my life with them.”
She added: “Everybody’s dying. Everybody’s terminal. I’ve just been told. Are you dying today or are you living today? That’s the choice you have to make.”
So many people bring up the analogy of getting hit by a bus, Stromski said. “I’ve had the same bus following me with my face on the side, and it sideswiped me. That bus is always going to be there, so I’ve loaded it up with faith.”
Yes, Stromski said, she will never be done with chemo; Stage 4 means “never being done with this, until I die. But let’s keep it real. Let’s keep it hopeful. I’m planning on a really great retirement party in eight years.”
A deep an abiding faith guides, Stromski said. “My story is already written in the stars. God has given me everything I need right now to get through it.”
This October, Stromski said, “Stop buying the pink. Whatever money you would use for that pink shirt or coffee mug, send to METAvivor for research. Don’t support the machines who are making money off the corpses of my friends who died.”
Stromski said she used to write that she was cured. “There may never be a cure, but I can be healed.”
Asked what she hopes will be her story’s outcome, Stromski smiled. “A long life, full of hope and faith.”
(Keri Stromski) (Keri Stromski)
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