For Colleen Rivers, breast cancer has “impacted every aspect” of her life. When she was 15 years old, her mother, age 49 at the time, was diagnosed with stage 4 breast cancer. The months preceding her diagnosis, Colleen’s mother had severe back pain, lung fluid and was short of breath. Calcifications in her breast, found through a mammogram, were not known to doctors at the time as precursors for breast cancer. She would go on to have 9 months of chemo: “In retrospect, I think we all knew she was going to die, but she did chemo for 9 months and we are talking like 1995 chemo, so she was really sick.” While her siblings were away at college, Colleen took on the primary role of helping her mother through the illness. While she notes that she “was so grateful I got to do that for her,” it meant Colleen witnessed her mother actively dying. Diagnosed in August of 1995, her mother passed the following May.
The experience framed the rest of Colleen’s life: “prior to my mom’s illness, I had never seen anyone sick before. I saw what doctors did for her, so I went on to be a doctor. In that way I was really lucky. I have a higher amount of empathy, especially for cancer patients in what I do now.” Currently an ER doctor, Colleen also launched SEEK, which she describes as a “call to action to try to inspire people to take ownership of their health, particularly those who have lost family members to disease.” The program aims to use nature AND nurture by addressing lifestyle: how one moves their body, how one eats, manages stress, habits and more. These changes, coupled with modern healthcare, aim to help people living in healthcare limbo. SEEK is a direct result of her mother’s experience, which has motivated Colleen to focus on the preventative aspect of healthcare.
The methods certainly worked. Colleen underwent genetic testing and early/regular screenings for breast cancer and was diagnosed with stage 0, thanks to her advocacy. She underwent a double mastectomy and clear lymph nodes meant she did not need chemotherapy: “I joke I had breast cancer for 10 minutes.” It is a testament to how far healthcare and advocacy for women has come since Colleen’s mother was diagnosed. She notes, “my four children don’t have to lose me and that’s awesome.”
When asked about her involvement with Runway, Colleen poignantly reflects that “back when my mom passed, there weren’t resources like Runway to support families. Now that I look back and am myself a mother, maybe it wasn’t ideal for a 15 year old to be doing what I did for my mom and I am grateful we have a chance to help mothers and children going through this.” No matter how many years go by, the pain of losing a mother never fades and Colleen is quick to point out that grief often isn’t in the way most expect: “I think I am more affected now by my mother’s death than I was for the big life events like my graduation or wedding. I am a go go go, charge ahead person, but it’s the small moments- when I am at the mall with my kids and I see another mother being able to hand her child off to their mom- it’s these pieces that have affected me and have dialed me more into this work to support families.”