Love Local, Newburyport: Amy Burke

First off, I want to thank Olivia and Runway for Recovery for all of the work that they do to help support families who have been affected by breast cancer. It is because of your continued work that has inspired me to share my story today. 

I was first introduced to Runway for Recovery through my cousin Shannon and my Aunt Ruth, both of whom coach Varsity field hockey.  Most of you know Shannon, as she coaches here in Newburyport and my Aunt Ruth coaches Pentucket. In honor of breast cancer awareness month, both teams hosted a “Playing for Pink” game. I decided to attend both games and show my support, having recently been diagnosed with breast cancer. As part of the pink game, the players wore pink t-shirts with the saying “Playing for survivors, playing for families, Playing for ‘fill in the blank.’” In the blank space, each player had the opportunity to write a name on the back of their shirt. Emma Keefe, one of the senior captains from Newburyport, decided that she was going to honor me. I had never met Emma in my entire life. To say that I was honored and touched was an understatement. I had the chance to meet Emma at the end of the game and she walked up to me and gave me a big hug and said, “You are so strong. You are going to beat this!” 

When Olivia first contacted me to share my story I was hesitant. One, I hate talking in front of large groups of people, especially about myself and two, I know that I am probably going to cry because every speech I have ever given I cry. However, I know how important it is to spread awareness and hopefully by sharing my story it reaches at least one person here tonight. So here goes…

In September of 2023 I was diagnosed with invasive ductal carcinoma. Simply put, I had stage two breast cancer at the young age of 38. 

Back in June of 2023 I started noticing that my right breast wasn’t perfectly round anymore. My first thought was, “Thanks a lot breastfeeding for ruining my perfectly round and perky breasts!” I even joked with my husband that for my 38th birthday I wanted a breast lift and reduction, as breastfeeding had taken its toll (Little did I know that I was going to get my wish, just not in the way I would have expected). I kept an eye on it and by July I really started to notice a difference as the abnormal puckering and dimpling seemed to be getting worse.

On September 1st, I had a routine physical and mentioned it to my doctor who said as a precaution I should get a mammogram. After a mammogram, ultrasound, and biopsy I was diagnosed with breast cancer. They also found cancerous cells in the lymph nodes of my right armpit. Because of this, I couldn’t move forward with a treatment plan until I had an MRI, bone scan, and CT scan to determine if the cancer had spread past those two areas. Thankfully it was determined that the cancer didn’t spread, which was a moment of relief in an otherwise crazy few months. 

On the day of my diagnosis, I remember having to call all of my family members separately. When I called each of them, I remember telling them two words that I held onto when the doctor first broke the news to me, “It’s treatable and curable!” As soon as I heard those two words, I knew it was going to be a long, grueling journey, but I knew I would get through it. 

There is never a good time to get breast cancer, however, I truly believe that the timing of my diagnosis was divine intervention. Exactly a week after my diagnosis, Dr. Leif Ellisen, one of the program directors for Breast Medical Oncology at the Mass General Cancer Center, was speaking at Haverhill Country Club. I was able to meet with him and shared with him my profile and everything I knew so far of my diagnosis. I wanted to make sure that I was on the right path to recovery and reassure myself that he would recommend the same steps. I met him on Wednesday night and by mid-afternoon the next day he set me up with three of the leading doctors at MGH. Four days later I met with Dr. Vidula, my oncologist, Dr. Gadd, my surgeon, and Dr. Taghian, my radiologist. They came up with the best form of treatment for my type of breast cancer and three weeks later, on November 3rd I was starting my chemo regimen- which would be a total of 16 rounds!

For those of you who know me, know that sports and working out is a huge part of my life. I vowed to myself that during my chemo treatments I would continue to push myself and exercise as much as I could (much to the dismay of my husband and mother).  One, I wanted to keep things as normal as possible and two, I needed to keep myself sane.  My exercise of choice was the Peloton bike, along with strength classes that they offer. One of my favorite instructors is Jess Sims. Not only is she super motivating, but I love that she played college basketball just like I did and she grew up not far from here in Peabody. One of her favorite sayings when interval training is, “Line ‘em up, and knock ‘em down.” I decided to live by that motto to help me get through my 16 rounds of chemo. One by one I slowly completed my treatments, all while pushing through working out, being a wife, a mom, and continuing to work as a teacher. And on March 22nd, after 16 rounds of chemotherapy, I got to ring the bell! I had never been so happy in my life to cross that milestone off my list. 

Although chemotherapy was finished and I was more than relieved, I quickly realized that I would have to make one of the hardest decisions of my life. The day I finished chemo, I also met with Dr. Gadd, my surgeon. In order to get a better idea of what surgery would look like, I needed to have an MRI to figure out the size of the tumor. Up until this point, I was convinced that I was going to have a lumpectomy to remove whatever else was left, as well as the lymph nodes that were still affected. When the MRI results came back, I received great news, my tumor that had previously been 4.3cm was now only 0.9cm, which meant my body had a great response to the chemo. However, because it hadn’t completely shrunk and gone away, Dr. Gadd discussed the option of a lumpectomy vs. a mastectomy. She also let me know that if I chose a lumpectomy and she wasn’t able to get all of the margins, that I would have to go back in and have a mastectomy. I originally jumped to the conclusion that no matter what I was going to have a lumpectomy. But, as I started to really think about my options, what each surgery entailed, and what my future would really look like, I made the difficult decision to have a double mastectomy with reconstruction. So today I stand before you, 7 days post surgery, drains and all! 

My roommate and best friend from college, Leah, created a t-shirt campaign for people to help support my fight against breast cancer. On the back of the shirts it had the saying, “Nobody Fights Alone.” This sentiment couldn’t be more true! This entire journey would not have been possible without the support from family, friends, colleagues, and my students. The Pentucket Girls Basketball Team, Guilford College women’s basketball team, and the men’s and women’s basketball teams at Colby-Sawyer College where Chris and I met and both played basketball — all wore t-shirts in my honor! All of these people made up Amy’s Army and they have been supporting me and cheering me on every step of the way. I seriously couldn’t have gotten through it without the help and love from each and every one of you.

I share my story in the hopes that you advocate for yourself, that you don’t miss regular appointments, that you seek out opinions of people who have a proven medical track record, and that if it feels good to you, you allow others to cheer you on as this community and so many others have. I also share my story knowing that it is just one of many when it comes to breast cancer — there are many others that end with a different outcome or a different prognosis and I am so grateful my outcome is something I can share with all of you. What I love about Runway and events like tonight is that we can come together and support one another — AND we can show up for those who have an unimaginable diagnosis or loss. 

And lastly, a special shoutout to my rock, my best friend, and the one who has been by my side through everything- my amazingly supportive husband. Chris, I love you, Kennedy, and Jackson with all of my heart.