By Emily Williams-Robertshaw
This Mother’s Day, the Steed family will celebrate in the usual fashion. They will gather at matriarch Renee Steed’s home with her husband, Mike, and they will eat great food and spend time together.
There is a lot to celebrate with four children, four grandchildren and another grandchild on the way.
It’s also a time to celebrate their health. Since Renee’s breast cancer diagnosis in 2019, the family has become a unit of survivors.
Renee’s outcome was a positive one. Her case was caught early. She knew she was high risk and had been a patient in UAB’s high-risk group at the UAB Breast Health Clinic. She received her cancer diagnosis in her third year with the clinic.
She knew she had a history of breast cancer on both sides of her family, as well as cancers that are loosely connected to breast cancer. Her brother had a battle with colon cancer in his early 40s.
She even had genetic testing done through the clinic and found out she had the CHEK2 gene, which indicates a significant risk of developing breast cancer after the age of 30.
While she knew the risks and the statistics, Renee’s diagnosis was a wake-up call not only for herself but for her daughters, Baret Steed and Erica Steed Mitchell.
“I think we just thought it was farther off,” said Erica.
Because she was monitored so closely at the clinic, Steed said she didn’t feel like the diagnosis was imminent.
“Every year when I went to the breast health clinic, they would give me this sheet of paper and say, ‘Double mastectomy is an option for you,’” Renee said. “I didn’t even want to consider it, and then they found the cancer.”
According to the Breast Cancer Research Foundation of Alabama, 1 in 8 women are diagnosed with breast cancer in their lifetimes. It is projected that 4,460 women will be diagnosed with the disease in 2021 and approximately 720 will die.
The diagnosis immediately brought the family together, Erica said, not just the women, but their two other siblings and father, as well.
“It brought us all closer together and, on the tail end of it, has given us this common cause, which has been incredible,” Erica said.
To Know or Not to Know
Even without their mother’s diagnosis, Baret and Erica knew they were at a higher risk. The sisters were able to go through the testing together with support from a mother who had been through it all.
“You never really pushed or really encouraged us to get genetic testing until after your diagnosis,” Erica said to Renee.
Once she was diagnosed, Renee said the risk for her daughters became that much more real.
“When she said she wanted us to get tested for her birthday, I couldn’t say no,” Baret said.
Baret noted that she was more hesitant than Erica.
“I think I’m a very anxious person and I overthink everything,” Baret said. She asked her mother and sister, if they had the gene, would they have immediately had a double mastectomy. Both mother and daughter said no.
“When they called and said I didn’t have it, I wasn’t even excited,” Baret said. “I just immediately asked, ‘But what about my sister?’”
While Baret did not test positive for the CHEK2 gene, Erica did.
“Seeing that (my mother’s) outcome was so positive because of early detection, that was more encouragement to do it rather than let it be this looming and scary situation,” Erica said.
“My outcome is more likely to be like hers because I will be followed through the clinic.”
Catch Cancer Early
Because of early detection, Renee’s treatment was simple in comparison to the alternative.
“My cancer was caught so early,” she said. “My diagnosis could have been chemo and radiation, but I didn’t have to do that.”
She had a double mastectomy, which was not only a method of treatment, but also piece of mind for the future.
“It’s made me very passionate,” she added, not only about monitoring high-risk cases but making the effort to have those annual mammograms and screenings.
“I always talk about being high risk, but of those 1 in 8 women who are diagnosed, many have no family history,” she said. “If you’re not high risk it doesn’t mean you aren’t going to have it.”
After her diagnosis, Steed went into action and joined the board of the Breast Cancer Research Foundation of Alabama, knowing that the money she raised would be put to use locally, even at the same clinic where she is treated.
“This money stays right here,” Erica said. “It goes to doctors that you know and see.”
Erica recently joined the BCRFA junior board, and the entire family joins in when there is a fundraiser, even at a social distance in last year’s Pink Up the Pace run.
“We got out in our neighborhood and all had our race T-shirts on,” Renee said. “We walked the five miles with the babies on golf carts.”
Renee said being plugged into the work being done at the cancer center gives her satisfaction.
“One of the things that I love about being on the board is that we get to sit and listen to the studies that are being conducted,” Renee said. “I’m so hopeful that someday there may even be a vaccine. It’s all very encouraging.”
It is especially encouraging when you have a family filled with women.
Steed noted that she looks to the future and sees better treatments and prevention for her family, not only her two daughters and her stepdaughter but also for her four grandchildren. Erica is pregnant with the fifth.
“I have granddaughters,” Renee said. “Maybe one day they won’t have to go through this.”