Erin Lawry, 46, is no stranger to challenges.
As someone who has completed over 40 marathons and Iron Man competitions, including running the Boston Marathon seven times—even in 2013 during the infamous bombings—she’s always pushing herself further and lending a helping hand to others along the way.
That’s why when Lawry was diagnosed with cancer in 2016, she never—not even for a second—thought about giving up.
"I just had to stay positive. One step at a time, you know?” she says.
Just two years prior, Lawry’s mother died (in 2014) after a fight with liver bile duct cancer. "After my mom passed away, I continued to run in her honor, and I did five marathons and a half Iron Man in two years,” she says. "I just felt really strong. I ran the Boston Marathon again and qualified, and I started a new job. Things were taking a turn in the right direction.
When she headed to the gym one spring day in 2016, she didn’t know she would be further changing her life forever.
"I worked out at LA Fitness that Saturday and decided to head over to Fresh Thyme to pick up a few things, which was when I saw the mammography van,” she says.
The 40-foot UC Health mobile diagnostics van offers 3-D mammography, the same technology available on site. The same radiology technicians who see patients at the various UC Health sites also provide screenings and services to patients in the van.
"They were closing for the day, but I went ahead and knocked anyway, and the tech got me right in,” she says, adding that she’d had a mammogram at the age of 38 but that it was time for her to have another one. "I really feel like my mom put the van there for me that day.”
A week later, Lawry got a call that she needed to be seen for an ultrasound and a biopsy.
"I knew that call meant something was wrong,” she says. "I’m not one to cry or get scared, and so, I went by myself, but that day, when I went to get my biopsy, I became very scared, and I started to cry. All of the memories about watching my mom go through chemotherapy in the same place (the UC Health Barrett Cancer Center) and all that she endured came flooding back, and now, I was there, going through my own journey. But I remembered my mom’s positive spirit and what a trooper she was, and it helped me keep going.”
Lawry said a familiar face at the Barrett Cancer Center also helped.
"The tech that was on the van that day, who I found out was Sharon Williams—the woman who let me into the van when they were closing down and helped to save my life—was there, and she just stayed with me and kept reassuring me,” she recalls. "She held my hand, and she even gave me a bracelet that she was wearing that said ‘Stand Up for Cancer,’ She said it was ‘for my mom.’ Sharon was a godsend.”
Lawry underwent several biopsies that day and was sent home.
Su-ju Lee, MD, associate professor of radiology at the UC College of Medicine and a radiologist at UC Health and the UC Cancer Institute, was the physician that read Lawry’s scans and found her cancers.
"(She) called to tell me that I did have cancer,” she says, adding that she was diagnosed with ductal carcinoma in two separate areas in her left breast. "I was at work when I got the news, but I just stayed there and worked the rest of my day. I was in shock. I mean, I didn’t have any lumps. I didn’t think anything was wrong. I was just getting a mammogram. It truly threw me for a loop. I thought I was going to die.”
But it was her mom’s spirit that kept resonating with her.
"I knew I just had to keep going and get through it,” she says, much like a runner who is trying to win the race would say. "It’s just what I had to do.”
Lawry decided to have a mastectomy in July, performed by Jaime Lewis, MD, assistant professor of surgery and UC Health breast cancer surgeon, and undergo reconstruction. Lawry encountered some complications with her reconstruction due to allergic reactions to Bacitracin, a common antibiotic, and she developed a blood clot under her implant, which lead to more surgeries. Now, she has healed and is doing much better.
Luckily, her cancer had not spread to her lymph nodes, so chemotherapy and radiation were not needed in Lawry’s case, which was a huge relief, she says.
Throughout it all—even once against doctor’s orders, she sheepishly admits—she kept on running.
"Last November, I was a coach and a pacer in the Queen Bee Marathon,” she says. "I planned to walk that one but ended up running the last 4 miles. When I wasn’t running them, I was walking them.”
"If Sharon wouldn’t have let me in that day, who knows where I’d be,” she says. "I’m thankful to my entire team at the UC Cancer Institute and all of my supporters for helping me live, thrive and just keep running.”