Some wisdom, like Kristi Blair’s, is hard-won. “I was pretty vigilant about mammograms,” says Blair, whose mother died of breast cancer. “I’d always go get my mammogram on my mom’s birthday.”
The first three times, Blair came through the mammogram with flying colors. But not the fourth. Although her doctor thought she was in the clear, Blair couldn’t help thinking that something was off.
Unfortunately, a second test proved Blair right a few months later. Fortunately, she was well-prepared for the diagnosis of breast cancer.
Knowledge Is Power
When her mother and aunt were diagnosed with breast cancer a few years earlier, Blair had learned all she could about the disease.
She started tracking luminaries in the field, including scientist Nora Disis, M.D., who was investigating whether vaccines could stop cancer. And including Julie Gralow, M.D., one of the nation’s foremost breast cancer experts and clinical researchers, and an oncologist at UW Medicine and Seattle Cancer Care Alliance.
Blair was 35 and the mother of five children (the youngest was only 2 years old) when she learned she had breast cancer. She was scared.
“I was thinking, ‘I just want to make it five years. I want to see these kids graduate. I want to make it to these milestones,’” says Blair.
She switched her care to Julie Gralow. And she pinned her hopes for the future on Nora Disis. “I wanted to get my care from people on the forefront,” Blair says.
The Real Risk
Given her family history, Blair decided to have a double mastectomy. Afterwards, she had multiple surgeries; hormone therapy and chemotherapy followed. It was an exhausting process. Still, Blair decided to volunteer for an experimental clinical trial — called WOKVAC — conducted by Disis, the director of the UW Medicine Cancer Vaccine Institute. She kept participating even after her family moved to Dallas.
In part, this is a reflection of Blair’s faith in Disis. “Nora’s a hero in the fight against breast cancer,” she says firmly. It’s also a reflection of Blair’s faith in research to move medicine forward. She doesn’t know if she received a vaccine treatment or a placebo. And, even if she did receive the vaccine, she’s not sure if it will help her body fight cancer in the future. The uncertainty does not bother her.
“I know that you take a risk,” says Blair. “But for me, the risk is NOT understanding cancer.”
A Better Way
Now 41, Blair admits that she is not quite the same person she was before diagnosis. “Life definitely changes in a physical way,” she says. “It’s a new normal, for sure.”
Even so, she and her husband found the energy to start a nonprofit called Wings of Karen. Named after her mother, Karen Denmark, Wings of Karen funds new, novel breast cancer research in the Pacific Northwest and Texas through a 5K race called the Bra Dash.
In participating in clinical trials and in running Wings of Karen, Blair has a single-minded goal: helping researchers learn as much as they can about breast cancer. For women everywhere. For her kids.
“I have a daughter who’s 20, and she has her own concerns now. She saw my mom go through it, her grandma, and then me, so she’s nervous about it,” says Blair. “What I tell my children is that, as time goes on, we’re gaining more knowledge, and things are continuing to get better.”
And Blair knows that knowledge — about cancer, about the efficacy of vaccines — will lead to better care.
“I want a simpler path,” says Blair. “If my children are diagnosed with breast cancer, I want them to have an easier way.”