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Christmas Eve gatherings. Summer vacations at the Jersey Shore. These are just some of the experiences Jacquie Beck and Kerry O’Riordan McAdam have always shared.
They never expected they’d add Penn Medicine, cancer, and a fundraising gala — held in their honor — to that list.
When Friends Become Family
Jacquie and Kerry’s connection goes back more than three decades, to when Kerry was born.
“Kerry is my best friend’s niece, but because I’m so close to the entire extended family, I consider her a niece, too” Jacquie says.
So when Kerry was diagnosed with incurable stage IV metastatic breast cancer (also known as MBC) in 2020 at just 29 years old, it was a shock to everyone including her beloved “aunt” Jacquie — not only because of Kerry’s age, but because there’s almost no history of cancer in Kerry’s large family.
“I was just devastated,” Jacquie remembers.
Jacquie had no way of knowing she, too, would receive a similar diagnosis only a few months later — a somber one, but one that’s strengthened her connection to Kerry and the cause they now share.
Kerry was living in Chicago when she noticed two pea-sized lumps in her left breast in 2019.
Her OB-GYN ordered an ultrasound. Specialists who reviewed the results said the lump was “probably benign” and told Kerry to return for a follow-up six months later. Only then, in January 2020, did doctors biopsy Kerry’s lymph nodes. It showed that Kerry had stage IIB breast cancer.
“Ross was with me and my family had flown to Chicago to join us when we met with the doctors and learned I had cancer,” Kerry remembers. “It was late afternoon and I remember how empty the office was and how eerie it all felt.”
Doctors began preparing Kerry for a double mastectomy, chemotherapy, radiation, and more scans. Stunned but optimistic, Kerry and her family decided to get a second opinion from Penn Medicine in Kerry’s home state of Pennsylvania.
“My uncle is a cardiologist, and he pointed me toward Dr. Rachel Jankowitz at Penn Medicine,” Kerry remembers.
“Right away, I really liked her and decided to be treated by her, remotely. I’d travel to Philadelphia as needed.”
It was Rachel Jankowitz, MD, who discovered that Kerry’s cancer was not stage IIB. The cancer had, in fact, spread to Kerry’s liver and skull and she was diagnosed with stage IV metastatic breast cancer.
Kerry began treatment quickly, including an oral chemotherapy to keep a tumor on her skull from impairing her eyesight.
Countless friends and family including Jacquie began rooting her on.
“I remember telling Kerry before radiation, ‘You’ve got this. You’ve got to go in like you own it and you’re going to come out stronger. It will beat you up but you will come out stronger.’”
To some extent, Jacquie was speaking from experience. She had been through cancer before.
Jacquie Beck was first diagnosed with cancer — early-stage breast cancer — a little more than ten years ago, in 2011. In her 40s at the time, she underwent a bilateral mastectomy and began hormone therapy treatment. Cancer-free within a few months, she remained in remission for the next nine years, doing the things she loves: Spending time with her husband and three children, biking, traveling, coaching lacrosse, and working full-time.
However, around the same time Kerry was diagnosed in 2020, Jacquie began experiencing pain on her right side as well as fatigue, weight loss, and night sweats. In May 2020, diagnostic tests revealed the unexpected: Jacquie’s breast cancer had returned. In fact, the cancer had spread to her liver, brain, and bones. Like Kerry, Jacquie had stage IV metastatic breast cancer.
“It’s the last thing you want to hear. My mindset is God isn’t letting Kerry or me battle this alone. We’ve got each other.”
Up to that point, Jacquie had been seeing doctors at a local hospital. With this new diagnosis, her husband Doug and best friend, Clare insisted she seek the expertise of Penn Medicine. Jacquie had heard about Dr. Jankowitz through Kerry's uncle, Martin O'Riordan, MD. She called Penn Medicine, saw Dr. Jankowitz within the week, and began chemotherapy and bone and brain radiation under Dr. Jankowitz’s care. Jacquie continues to take oral chemotherapy, undergo monthly IV infusions, and takes cognitive pills to help prevent radiation-induced memory loss. So far, the results of the treatment have been good.
“I could go into my closet in the fetal position and cry, or I can live my life to the fullest and be grateful for every good day. It’s hard. I have tired days. But my mindset is more powerful than the tiredness I sometimes feel. I wake up and get right on my Peloton and think about my goals for that day and I press on, with a full day of work and schedule lunch dates with friends when my schedule allows it.”
A Big, Black Tie Optional Idea
After some treatment complications, Kerry and her now-husband Ross moved home to Pennsylvania to be closer to family and Penn Medicine.
As her treatment progressed, Kerry couldn’t help but notice how little most people (including herself, before she was diagnosed) knew about stage IV metastatic breast cancer. For example, few people seem to realize that it’s not curable and that “stage IV” and ”metastatic breast cancer” mean the same thing: Cancer that has spread from its starting point to other parts of the body.
“Just about everyone I know knows someone who has been affected by stage IV metastatic breast cancer, which is the only type of breast cancer that’s fatal,” Kerry says. “Something like thirty percent of women who get early-stage breast cancer will eventually experience MBC. Yet there’s very little awareness or funding.”
Indeed, much of the government funding once earmarked for metastatic breast cancer research has dried up. Today, personal philanthropy is a driving force in MBC research and breakthroughs.
Jacquie’s daughter Nicole, 28, brought up the idea of a charity event to raise money for research.
“I didn’t have the mental capacity to organize it, but gave Nicole my blessing and said I’d be involved,” Kerry remembers.
Nicole jumped in headfirst. She, her mom Jacquie, Kerry, and a team of family and friends began researching charities that would use donations to advance breast cancer research. They landed on METAvivor. A volunteer-led non-profit, METAvivor is the only U.S. organization that exclusively funds MBC research through a scientific peer review process. The organization awards research grants to qualified individuals whose research proposals show promise for the stage IV breast cancer community. Donors have a front row seat to recipients’ research.
“METAvivor’s transparency is meaningful to me,” Kerry says. “As fundraisers, we can see exactly which research grant we’re supporting. We even get to name a grant for each $50,000 raised.“
The First Annual Philadelphia Metsquerade Gala
A date and venue were chosen for the First Annual Philadelphia Metsquerade Gala: Friday, February 25, 2022 at the Crystal Tea Room. 100 percent of proceeds will be donated to METAvivor and specific MBC related research.
Jacquie and Kerry’s oncologist, Dr. Jankowitz, will be the evening’s keynote speaker.
“We felt like the gala should have an educational component, and immediately thought, ‘Who better than Dr. Jankowitz?’” Kerry explains. “Jacquie and I both are treated by her and we both love her. She’s like a celebrity in our family!”
The black tie optional Metsquerade will feature live music, dancing, dinner, prizes, and a live auction. Penn Medicine and several other area businesses have signed on as sponsors. Kerry and Jacquie will also speak that night — about their experiences, their hopes for funds raised, and their treatment at Penn Medicine.
“I think about that night at the oncologist’s office in Chicago when I received my initial diagnosis — how desolate and cold the office seemed. It never feels like that at the Perelman Center for Advanced Medicine at Penn Medicine. There are always people there and they always treat me with care and compassion, even if I’m just getting my vitals or my blood drawn. They remember me. They’ve gone above and beyond for me, like when I was still living in Chicago and they called all over to find a place that could get me in for emergency lab work. I love my team at Penn Medicine so much and would never consider going anywhere else.”
“I just have so much confidence and faith in them. When my treatment faced some challenges, Dr. Jankowitz never made decisions alone. She calls industry leaders. She called other doctors she knew from medical school. She and the Penn Medicine team are wonderful. Being under their care is like winning the cancer treatment Super Bowl! I have so much confidence in every decision they make.”
In addition to hopefully hitting their fundraising goal of $250,000 Jackie and Kerry hope to have fun on February 25th. Jacquie’s guests from out-of-town include her best friend, who is flying up from Baton Rouge, LA with her daughters and husband to show their support, and her friend from work who lives in Virginia. Kerry’s include friends she hasn’t seen in years. Their shared guests include dozens upon dozens of loved ones helping them not only in their personal journeys, but in their quest for better treatments and a cure.
“People are so kind,” Kerry says of the outpouring they’ve experienced so far. “I have no words for it.”
Read: Penn Medicine