“I remember being in the doctor’s office,” Eric begins. “The oncologist and healthcare coordinator came in, and I knew it wasn't good by the look on their faces. Ashley was holding Madelyn when we got the full cancer diagnosis. They gave us the news, started talking about survivorship, and asking us all sorts of questions.
“I remember thinking that I was going to be a single dad to a new baby. I’m like, ‘how are you going to do that, Eric?’
“I got up, said I wasn’t feeling well and wanted to get out of the room. But I also knew I couldn’t leave. I’m standing there, and the next thing I know, I passed out.
“I wake up and nurses are checking my blood pressure and I’m saying, ‘Don’t worry about me - Ashley’s the one who’s sick.’ I’m looking over to her. She comes over, holds my hand and says, ‘Live with no regrets.’ That was something my dad used to say.
“I knew that from that point on, whatever happened, everything was going to be okay.”
They met in 2011 at a church bazaar in St. Augusta, Minnesota. Ashley was his neighbor’s sister, and the two talked all night. As they walked home after the bazaar, his neighbor, April, pulled him aside.
“You should definitely hold her hand. She wants you to.”
“Oh, yea, definitely.”
Eric was skeptical, but April was persuasive.
“So, I walked up to her and reached over for her hand,” Eric recalls. “She slapped my hand and pulled away. ‘What are you doing?’ she asked. I looked back and April and her husband, Erik, were laughing. I guess I learned.”
But he wasn’t giving up. Several weeks later, he got Ashley’s number from Erik.
“I started texting her,” Eric remembers. “But I forgot to say who it was, and I remember her texting back saying, ‘who is this? Eric, is this you?’"
They began dating soon after. Eric knew early on that Ashley was special; that she was the one. So, he bought the ring, told some good friends about his plans, but hadn’t yet nailed down the ‘how’ or ‘when’ he would ask her.
That's when one of his friends stepped in.
“We were all at a Christmas show on New Year’s Eve in 2014 and one of our good friends pulled me aside at 5 pm and told me that the performers were going to bring us on stage in two hours, so I should be ‘ready' to propose to her."
Eric got 'ready' (for exactly what, he didn't know). He left Ashley in the lobby before the show and met the performers so they could plan how they would get Ashley up on stage so he could propose. All the while, Ashley was calling him, wondering where he was, but he had to focus on the 'plan.'
“So, they pull us up on stage. It’s me, Ashley and a bunch of guys in flannel shirts. She looks over at me and asks, ‘what’s going on?’ I shrugged my shoulders. Then we're told that we’re in a singing contest. I didn’t know what to do.
"The guy at the piano was playing, 'You lost that loving feeling,' by the Righteous Brothers, so I just started singing. I’m no singer, so it wasn’t the best rendition of the song, but when I was done, I got down on one knee, pulled out the ring and asked her to marry me.
“She said ‘yes.’
Eric and Ashley were married in Kimball, Minnesota, in a friend’s backyard, on Beaver Lake on October 24, 2015, with the reception at the Kimball Ballroom. They went to Duluth for their honeymoon.
They had planned to have kids so were overjoyed when Ashley became pregnant with their daughter, Madelyn, in 2016.
“I remember, she was 32 weeks pregnant, and she was sitting there on the couch. She said, ‘Eric, come over here; feel this lump in my breast.’ I felt the lump. I just thought that it had something to do with the pregnancy. I was new to this, too, so we agreed that she would have her doctor look at it during her next OBGYN appointment, which was the following week.
“Truthfully, cancer was the first thing I thought of when I felt the lump, but I also thought she was too young. She was only 30.”
At her appointment, her doctor scheduled an ultrasound. The test came back with an 'abnormal' result, so Ashley was scheduled to have a biopsy on the mass in her breast. A week later, biopsy results showed that she had Stage II B breast cancer. She wasn't able to have a PET scan at the time because she was pregnant, and the test would have been dangerous to the baby.
They were told that her cancer was Estrogen and Progesterone positive. A week later, additional tests showed that Ashley was also HER2 positive, indicating that she had triple positive breast cancer, which is an extremely aggressive form of breast cancer.
Because Ashley's breast cancer was so aggressive, she was treated as soon as possible. Her cancer had grown so rapidly because the cancer had literally been 'feeding' off of the extra hormones in her body because she was pregnant and spreading faster than normal. Due the aggressive cancer, doctors told the Schepers that delivering the baby at 35 weeks was the best and safest option for Ashley and the baby.
"We were terrified," recalls Eric. "But our main goal was to deliver a healthy baby girl, then to get Ashley treatment for her cancer."
Their daughter, Madelyn, was born on May 16, 2017.
After the delivery of their daughter, Ashley had a PET scan, which showed seven spots on her liver. Doctors were certain that she had metastatic breast cancer but she needed a liver biopsy to confirm that diagnosis.
"We knew it was bad," Eric remembers. "But we didn't know exactly how bad. The PET scan confirmed that she had STAGE IV metastatic breast cancer."
The Schepers went to The Mayo Clinic and then to Minnesota Oncology in Minneapolis for a second and third opinion of the diagnosis. Both confirmed the Triple Positive metastatic breast cancer diagnosis. Ashley immediately began chemotherapy, first at her oncologist’s office in St. Cloud and then at Minnesota Oncology in Minneapolis.
After three rounds of chemotherapy, her cancer ‘scan’ was clear, and the cancer was considered NED (no evidence of disease). The lump in her breast and the seven spots on her liver were gone.
“After she was declared NED, I was thinking: 'everything’s going to be okay. Everything is going in the right direction. The cancer is going away.'”
Further testing revealed that Ashley had the BRCA1 mutant gene, meaning that she was more prone to a breast cancer recurrence or other types of cancer. Her oncologist recommended a double mastectomy. The Schepers decided against it in 2017. In January of 2018, she had a hysterectomy to prevent her hormones from 'feeding' the cancer and to reduce her risk for ovarian and uterine cancer, which is common for people with the BRCA1 mutant gene.
In spring 2020, her cancer came back, and she was diagnosed with a secondary primary breast cancer, which was Triple Negative. Her oncologist, once again, recommended double mastectomy surgery. This time, they agreed, but due to Covid-19, the opportunity for elective surgery was cancelled until further notice. Ashley completed four rounds of chemotherapy, starting in April.
At the same time, the Schepers were in the process of moving. They had sold their home and were living with her mother until their new home was finished.
In early June, Ashley had the double mastectomy surgery at Abbott Northwestern Minneapolis. Since the surgery and treatment, Ashley’s cancer scans have been clear, and she is NED once again. She has an antibody infusion called Herceptin at Minnesota Oncology every three weeks to - hopefully - keep her in NED.
Early on, Ashley worried – how her cancer had changed their lives and how it was affecting Eric.
“Ashley was telling me I should talk to someone, and I was like, ‘no thanks – I just need a beer and I'll talk to someone in the garage and I’ll be fine.’ She’s the one who told me about Jack’s.
“I think her biggest concern was that I was in denial. Originally, when she was diagnosed and we asked about survivorship, doctors gave her 2-3 years to live. The statistics behind metastatic breast cancer aren’t good. She didn’t think I was taking it seriously - she was like, 'you’re in denial; you think I’m going to be around forever and all that might not be the case. So, what are you going to do?' She wanted me to open up and talk to someone. She wanted me to accept that this cancer was real, versus me just thinking that everything is going to be okay and it would go away.
“This diagnosis is never going to go away! I know that.
“As much as she pushed me to join, though, I kept asking myself, ‘how is it going to help me - sitting in a circle with other guys, saying ‘hi, my name is Eric and my wife has cancer.’ How would that possibly help me?”
But Ashley kept pushing him to join Jack’s and Eric kept fighting the idea.
In November of 2018, they went to the Metastatic Breast Cancer Conference in the Twin Cities.
“I went to a breakout session at the conference and Dustin and Kim Cesarcik were leading it,” Eric recalls. “In the session, I heard about Kim’s breast cancer and she’s telling people that she was diagnosed with breast cancer when she was pregnant. It sounded so similar to what had happened to us. I went up to her after the session and said to her, ‘it was as if you were talking to me. Your experience was so similar to ours.’ She looked at me and said, ‘you need Jack’s!’”
Kim’s perspective opened Eric’s eyes; it made him really think about getting support for himself.
“A guy will listen to someone else, but when your wife tells you to do something, you might not listen to her,” he laughs.
After lunch at the conference, Eric stopped by the Jack’s booth and talked to Kyle Woody, co-founder of Jack’s. They met for lunch and talked a couple weeks later. That's when he decided to join Jack’s and began to attend Jack’s events, including an event at Top Golf in Brooklyn Center and a Nintendo Switch Boot Camp event in March 2019.
“I learned a lot through talking to Kyle and other 'Jacks' (guys who've cared for a loved one with a catastrophic illness). I learned to open up, to talk about what I was going through. There is a common theme when talking to caregivers – it’s about the loneliness you feel. You feel like nobody else really understands what you’re going through. And I don’t expect others to really understand it, because most people I knew haven’t been ‘there,’ and they can’t relate. They didn’t understand what we were going through as a couple, either. When she gets cancer, you not only have to worry about paying your mortgage, but you have to worry about getting a will in case things start to get bad. You always think about that. You wonder if you can afford to buy a new house. You worry about being a single parent.
“Someone broke the ice at that first Jack's event and asks me, ‘what’s your story? What brings you here?’ And I opened up. I talked. I shared my story.
"You get the sense that you’re not alone anymore. There are other people out there who can relate to all the stuff you’ve been going through. It was comforting, too. Those other guys ‘get’ what you’re going through; things you're going through as a couple.
"I knew from that point on, I was always going to be part of Jack’s.
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“If I could give anyone dealing with cancer any advice, I’d tell them to not try to do it all by themselves. There’s a lot of support out there. It’s okay to reach out and ask for help.
“I’ll never forget the first time I asked for help. It was for someone to cut my grass. I felt like I had to swallow my pride, but it was okay. It helped. Asking that first time is the hardest, but then you realize that it’s just your pride holding you back. You can’t let it."
There are things I can change and things I can’t change. I can’t change the physical parts of Ashley’s cancer. I can change how we act towards each other. It’s about being there for her as much as I can.
Lately, things have been going well for Ashley. She’s still in NED and is on a maintenance drug for HER2 positive cancer that has successfully kept her cancer inactive. Despite the long odds early on, her doctors are cautiously optimistic, never taking anything for granted, continuing to closely monitor her body for any cancer that might appear on the scans.
Eric, Ashley, and Madelyn are hopeful, too.
They moved into their dream home on Halloween, October 31st of this year.
“We’re living our lives and our dreams the way we want to,” Eric says. “If cancer comes back, we’ll cross that bridge, but for now, we’re not going to let it slow us down or stop us from living our dreams."
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By: Mike McGarry
Mike McGarry is a caregiver for his wife, Tracy, who has multiple myeloma. Mike and Tracy have 2 boys, Joseph, 13, and Jacob, 12. Mike has been a Jack's member since 2017.
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Most people think of family caregivers as women taking care of their aging parents or children. What many don’t know is that 16 million family caregivers in this country are men. AARP is on a mission to break the stereotypes and ensure that all family caregivers, including men, get meaningful support. Men, often due to societal perceptions, avoid talking about their caregiving situation and don’t feel comfortable talking about the emotional and economic challenges of caregiving. However, caregiving is tougher than tough and seeking help is not a sign of weakness but a sign of strength.
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