Homewood breast cancer survivor prescribing hope
BY GINGER BRASHINGER Correspondent May 14, 2013 6:32PM
Dr. Sheri Phillips, a doctor who had to quit practicing because of breast cancer, now is a motivational speaker. | Joseph P. Meier~Sun-Times Media
Updated: June 20, 2013 6:03AM
Dr. Sheri Phillips, a national spokeswoman for Susan G. Komen for the Cure, said there was a time when she wanted to die.
“I did want to die, but I can look back almost five years later and say I left a legacy, and I’m grateful,” Phillips said.
The 45-year-old Homewood mother of two was diagnosed with Stage 2 breast cancer in October 2008. At the time, Phillips had been recently separated from her husband and was raising her two teenage daughters, Kirsten, 19, and Kiana, 17, and caring for her terminally ill mother.
Phillips had a full-time practice in occupational medicine and as an administrator — a “work comp doc” — the passion of her life.
But she required a partial mastectomy to save her life, after which she began a series of 15 rounds of chemotherapy and 33 radiation treatments.
She said she expected to complete her treatments and move forward with her life. But after her third round of chemotherapy, Phillips suffered severe chest pains while at home one evening. Diagnosing herself, she determined her symptoms were either an embolism or a heart attack.
“I knew both of them could kill me, so I got out my life insurance policy, said my prayers and went to bed,” Phillips said. “I was done.”
Instead of dying, Phillips awakened the next morning — “much to my dismay,” she said — and was rushed to the hospital, where she was diagnosed with a genetic heart problem. Doctors declined to operate, Phillips said, and she was told little could be done other than to put her on medication.
“I went on with my treatment and did my best to get on with my life,” she said. “God decided I would live.”
More medical troubles piled on. Phillips developed lymphedema in her right arm and hand and underwent five months of therapy to reduce the swelling enough to allow her to wear a compression garment 24 hours a day to prevent further medical issues.
But, being right-handed, she was unable to continue practicing medicine as she had for 18 years. To add insult to injury, the company for which she worked decided it no longer could employ Phillips with her diminished capabilities.
“I was devastated,” Phillips said. “I did not know what to do, because at the time, I thought (the company) was right.
“I’ve always wanted to be a doctor, since I was 2, and I didn’t know how to be anything else.”
A 2010 Susan G. Komen 3-Day for the Cure event in which Phillips said the walkers were shown the “hero treatment” proved to be life-changing for her.
“It had a new meaning for me because now I was a survivor,” Phillips said. “I knew I wanted to do something with Komen for the rest of my life. I just didn’t know what it was going to be.”
The opportunity came when Phillips was chosen from more than 500 applicants to become the Susan G. Komen for the Cure national spokesperson.
“I’m in my third year and loving it,” Phillips said.
Phillips has been able to bring hope to women through her story — not only of survival, but of actually improving her life.
She disagrees when people tell her that her personal story is too sad to share with those who are suffering through the reality of a cancer diagnosis.
“I share that weakness with people ... because people need to see that I’m real,” Phillips said.
She believes that “just about every woman out there is me,” she said. “If people think that I have this supernatural strength and that I never had any tears and that I never thought of death as an answer, then they can’t see me as a true example (of what they can do).”
And Phillips does set a considerable example of what life after cancer can be.
In addition to having a busy schedule as a Komen national spokeswoman, Phillips has traveled internationally as a ministry volunteer. She ran the Susan G. Komen Chicagoland Mother’s Day 5K Race for the Cure and will walk 60 miles in the Susan G. Komen Chicago 3-Day in August. And she has started a business, Diva M.D. Designs, after others asked her where they could get a “blinged out” compression arm garment like those she designed for herself.
Of her experiences, Phillips said, “My basic message is definitely faith, and it’s that God has a great plan for your life. As much as you think you can’t handle it, you can do everything that you are meant to do in Christ, who strengthens you. Period.”
She said she continues to have a role as a physician, as well.
“I’m still practicing medicine, but in a different way,” Phillips said. “I’m still reaching patients, still reaching souls. I’m giving hope for the future.”
For information about Susan G. Komen for the Cure events, visit www.komen.org.