Finding Beauty in a Cancer Journey

In 2007, Laura Warren of Mclean, Virginia, was diagnosed with HER2-positive breast cancer, a form of the disease that tends to be aggressive. She remembers the day she first met with a surgeon, a rainy Friday, as a very dark day. “His bedside manner was less than encouraging,” she says.

Then her husband Jim, who graduated from Duke in 1979, talked to a fellow graduate and friend who suggested they consult with Kimberly Blackwell, MD, director of the breast cancer program at Duke Cancer Institute. Blackwell, who has played a role in developing treatments for HER2-positive cancer, helped the couple understand their options. “Dr. Blackwell gave me great knowledge, information, and hope,” Warren says. “She was so encouraging and positive during those dark days when I needed it.”

Warren, who is originally from Greensboro, North Carolina, considered receiving treatment at Duke; her grandfather and grandmother met while attending Duke, and her grandmother later was treated for cancer there. But Warren decided to stay closer to home to keep life as normal as possible for herself, her husband, and their three daughters. Blackwell recommended an oncologist and a different surgeon in Virginia. “I felt like I was in really good hands,” Warren says.

 “Dr. Blackwell gave me great knowledge, information, and hope. She was so encouraging and positive during those dark days when I needed it.” --Laura Warren

Eight years later, Warren is cancer free. She got to see her oldest daughter, Katy, graduate from Duke in 2012. And the family, including Warren’s mother, Louise Bowles of Greensboro, have made a gift to support one of Blackwell’s clinical trials. The trial tests a treatment that targets HER2-positive breast cancer that has spread to the brain.

Having benefited from a cutting-edge therapy, Warren is a fervent believer in the importance of clinical trials to move new treatments forward. “Without Herceptin, the drug that is specific for HER2-positive cancer, I clearly know that I wouldn’t be sitting here talking to you right now,” she says. “Being an active participant in funding this particular trial that Dr. Blackwell is conducting for women who get metastatic cancer is so rewarding. If HER2 breast cancer comes back, the bones, lungs, or brain are the three places where it typically shows up. If there is something that could be done for these women who have it, I want to help do that. And who knows—I may one day need it. Our gift is altruistic, but it’s also personal.”

Because of her faith, Warren sees great value in her whole experience with cancer. “Out of the cancer journey, I acquired a love of flowers,” she says. During her year-long treatment, her family and friends sent her so many beautiful arrangements, and she began studying their style, color, and symmetry. She took classes in floral design and now works part time at a florist and designs flowers for her church and for weddings. In addition, one of her daughters, Colleen, who graduated from the University of Virginia in 2014, is now a pediatric oncology nurse. “Maybe my experience with cancer is partly why my middle daughter became a nurse,” Warren says. “God uses all things for good.” —Angela Spivey