At Rutgers Cancer Institute of New Jersey, breast cancer patient Kriss Fierro shares a warrior mentality anywhere and with anyone who may need it. Diagnosed with breast cancer in October 2014, the 34-year-old mother has become a bright, hopeful presence at the Cancer Institute, greeting fellow patients with words of encouragement, accompanying others to chemotherapy, dressing up as Mrs. Claus to deliver donated toys to pediatric cancer patients, and even founding the Kriss Fierro Fund to bring smiles, kindness, and love to other warriors.
Deborah L. Toppmeyer—Fierro’s oncologist, director of the Cancer Institute’s Stacy Goldstein Breast Cancer Center, and chief medical officer at Rutgers Cancer Institute of New Jersey, the state's only National Cancer Institute-designated cancer center and part of Rutgers Health—recognized something special about Fierro right away. “She is an inspiration with how she has fought her disease head-on with her positive outlook. Her attitude is simply extraordinary,” Dr. Toppmeyer says. “She is truly an angel who has touched so many hearts.
“Kriss is a young woman with no significant risk factors for developing breast cancer,” says Dr. Toppmeyer. “She did not inherit the breast cancer gene. This really came out of nowhere, like the majority of cases. We don’t usually know why somebody develops breast cancer. When I was examining her for the first time, I found a lymph node in her low anterior cervical area (the neck) that technically made her disease stage IV, not the initially diagnosed stage II. She cried.”
Fierro recalls the roller coaster of her life since her diagnosis. She had been doing what is called “insanity” exercise drills when her arm began to hurt more than it should have. The first doctor she saw told her it was nothing to worry about but then she came down with appendicitis and ended up hospitalized. If it weren’t for her appendix, she might not have been diagnosed with breast cancer and received treatment soon enough. “God works in mysterious ways,” she admits. Her advice to other women: “No matter what, if you feel something suspicious, push for a mammogram.”
Dr. Toppmeyer first treated Fierro aggressively with chemotherapy “because hers is a localized disease.” She will go on to have surgery and then radiation followed by hormone therapy. In some cases, surgery precedes chemotherapy and/or radiation. Every patient is different and every treatment plan is specific to the patient. At the Cancer Institute since 1995, Dr. Toppmeyer has helped countless patients navigate their personal journey through a comprehensive approach. “Through the years I’ve been involved in the design and implementation of clinical trials that offer promising new therapies targeted to specific types of breast cancer.”
Fierro’s surgical oncologist is Laurie Kirstein. “As a breast surgeon, I am often the first member of the team to meet a patient and my personal philosophy is to make sure each patient is educated about her disease and her treatment options,” Dr. Kirstein says. “This often makes a scary process a bit easier.”
“It makes a huge difference when you are battling for your life to have such an amazing, caring team battling with you,” Fierro says. “I keep all of them, those beautiful medical assistants and precious nurses, in my heart.
“Cancer is not just a physical thing. It’s mental. I insisted that it was not going to be so awful.” Even pain was just part of the battle. “It didn’t matter what stage the cancer was. I was only going to push that much harder. I dance and sing, ‘I’m feeling great. I’m so strong,’ ” She also adopted Alicia Keys’ song, “Superwoman” to fight her way through symptoms. “Don’t let your body tell your brain it is sick,” she adds. “Tell your body to heal.”