The Meaning of Care Magazine

Moments She Lives For: A Metastatic Cancer Survivor Fights Fear With Family

Published: Dec. 20, 2023

Still basking in the high of newlywed bliss in May 2015, Elyse DeTurk said it happened “in a snap of a finger.”

“My left breast just got really hard,” the 34-year-old said. “The whole thing. I was like, ‘What is going on?’”

Although imaging suggested nothing more than fibrous tissue, the strange and sudden health concern persisted and would eventually rock any kind of future that Elyse and Dustin – her husband of six months at the time – had imagined for themselves. 

The First Diagnosis

In May 2016, after noticing twinges of pain radiating from her left breast – which was still “hard like a baseball” – Elyse met with her Methodist primary care provider, Joan Quinn, MD, who concluded that it was time for a biopsy.

The 4-inch mass was angiosarcoma – a type of cancer that forms in the lining of blood and lymph vessels. 

More terrifying than the diagnosis itself, Elyse said, was the fact that she had likely been living with cancer for a year.

Elyse DeTurk Mastectomy
Elyse and Dustin DeTurk smile with positivity after Elyse's first mastectomy.

“It was like, ‘No. Please, no. Did it spread somewhere else?’”

It didn’t. 

She underwent a single mastectomy with Methodist breast surgical oncologist James Reilly, MD. Thirty radiation treatments later, Elyse received good news: She no longer had evidence of disease.

An All-Too-Familiar Setback

In April 2019, Elyse received something else to be thankful for, as she and Dustin welcomed their first child, Darwin, into the world. 

The healthy, happy family that the couple had always hoped to build was finally reaching fruition – until December 2020, when Elyse noticed a lump in her remaining right breast.

“As you might imagine, I was very sensitive to any kind of lumps and bumps at the time – I still am,” she said. “My heart just sank.”

Once again, it was angiosarcoma. 

Kirsten Leu, MD, Elyse’s oncologist with Nebraska Cancer Specialists – a network of oncology experts at Methodist Estabrook Cancer Center – wasted no time in scheduling a second mastectomy for her young patient.

Elyse soon found herself under the familiar, comforting care of Dr. Reilly, who again achieved clear margins ahead of more radiation. It all led to another clear scan.

“And every day after that, it was always, ‘Thank you, God, for another cancer-free day,’” Elyse said.


DeTurk Family
Elyse's third diagnosis came an hour after her youngest son's birth.

“A New Beginning”

Despite losing both breasts, Elyse felt grateful for what she had gained – another victory over cancer and, in December 2022, another son, Levi, who was born after a challenging pregnancy marked by significant hip pain.

“At about 20 weeks, I started swaying quite a bit,” Elyse said. “Enough to where people would point out my cute pregnancy wobble, but I really didn’t have a belly yet to blame it on.”

The hip pain and swaying grew more pronounced. She eventually needed crutches. And in the final month of her pregnancy, she was forced to rely heavily on Dustin to care for Darwin and herself.

“Things like getting in and out of bed or up off the couch,” Elyse said. “I couldn’t put any pressure on my leg at all. Eventually, I couldn’t even lift it. I would just cry from the pain.”

Elyse’s OB/GYN grew worried that whatever her patient was dealing with was far more serious than sciatic nerve pain as previously thought. But Elyse’s six-month cancer scans had been put on hold due to her pregnancy, so there was no way to rule out another recurrence. Elyse and her doctor decided on a 38-week C-section and an MRI scan immediately following delivery.

“When I got back to the room after that MRI, Dustin and I were just in heaven – meeting Levi, holding him, just being with him. And then an hour later, my OB came in crying.”

This time, Elyse’s recurrence had spread – to her lungs, liver, pelvis and left femur.

“Oh, my God,” Elyse managed to say as she wept. “That was the worst feeling in the world. Just to have that extreme high come crashing down to an extreme low. Our families came in 15 minutes later to meet Levi for the first time, and we had to tell them the news. Lots of numbness. Lots of crying. It was so hard on everyone. And I was in denial. Like, ‘Why me? Haven’t I been through enough? Haven’t I proven myself?’”

Even more traumatizing, Elyse said, was having to leave her husband and new baby behind at Methodist Women’s Hospital the following day. More imaging was needed at Methodist Hospital ahead of a partial hip replacement. The metastatic cancer had weakened Elyse’s bones. She had been hobbling around on a broken hip for the final three weeks of her pregnancy.

“But weirdly, it was kind of a new beginning for us,” Dustin said. “Levi’s birth made way for the start of Elyse’s recovery.”

“For Them. For Me. For Others”

Elyse DeTurk and Family
The DeTurk Family

Now, thanks to a rigorous and indefinite chemotherapy schedule, Elyse’s cancer continues to shrink. It’s nearly undetectable in some places. And she continues to fight her darkest fears – “What if it stops working for me? Will my boys even remember me?” – with the tiniest, most powerful moments.

“The little teeth coming in, the crawling, all the milestones and just seeing the boys interact,” she said. “And oh, my goodness, the way Levi reaches for me now – it just fills my heart. When my kids smile at me. When my husband hugs me. I just live for those moments. I want them. I want more of them so badly.”

And she’s confident she’ll get them thanks to the expert and compassionate care that have made Methodist an important part of her story.

“People like Dr. Reilly, who held my hand until I fell asleep for my second mastectomy,” Elyse said. “People like Bill, the screener during COVID, who wrote me inspirational poems to give me the boost I needed during radiation.”

“Life is a team sport,” said Bill Harris, a Methodist Hospital information desk associate and poetry enthusiast. “None of us can get through this thing alone.”

“And I think we all deserve a reason to believe that we’re going to be OK,” Dr. Reilly said.

Elyse’s reason comes in the form of chubby cheeks, gummy smiles, lots of Spider-Man and Legos, and one tender, loving companion. 

“I will beat this,” she said. “For them. For me. For others. I’m already doing it. This is happening. But for now, it’s simply, ‘Thank you, God, for another day.’”


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About the Author

Jessica Gill, the External Communications Manager for Methodist Health System, is a former television news anchor and journalist. She has a passion for story-telling and illustrating Methodist’s Meaning of Care.

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