There are unicorns and true love in Erika Burford’s story, but she’s still working on the fairy tale ending.
She’s 37, the mother of a pre-teen son, James. She's a business systems analyst with Citizens Bank, and plans this fall to marry her fiancé, Matt Brooks. She’s also in remission after undergoing chemotherapy to treat cancer, which is great, but the form of cancer she has is incurable. That means she eventually will have to face further treatments.
Burford is OK with that, and is living life fully. Family, friends, co-workers, total strangers, all are part of her support team. She rode their shoulders in the depth of her treatment, and now she’s back in the saddle, leading the charge to find a cure for cancer by fundraising with her group, now known at Team-E Unicorn. This is no fantasy: It’s a campaigning juggernaut for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society’s annual Man and Woman of the Year campaign.
Two years ago, she began to feel exceptionally tired, even more so than expected for someone juggling work with single parenthood. And then she found a lump; it was time to see a doctor. That was in February of 2014. On April 2, she returned to the doctor for her results. Here’s how she describes the scene in an email interview:
“I sat on a cold medical bed, with my black Converses swaying nervously. My fiancé carefully placed his sweatshirt over my shoulders like a cape and lightly kissed my forehead whispering, ‘I love you’.
“The door opened, my surgeon walked in. My feet stopped swaying. He sat in front of me and I heard only bits and pieces of the words he spoke.”
The diagnosis was dire: Stage IV follicular non-Hodgkin lymphoma. It’s incurable.
Her reaction was one of pure disbelief. “WHAT?!! Are you serious?!! No way. I’m a single mother with a full-time job. I don’t have that kind of PTO; I have a mortgage to pay. I just found the love of my life. We’re all so happy together – this cannot be happening…but it did.”
The cancer had been spreading slowly for years. It was under both arms, in her bone marrow, her collarbone, abdomen and groin.
Her oncologist, Kumar Abhishek, was upbeat; there was hope: The cancer had not made its way into her organs, and there was a chemotherapy regimen that won’t cure her, but could be effective. She started six months of treatment that May.
She describes Abhishek as a magician, and a patient one, at that.
“He and his team listened to every gripe, ache and complaint without hesitation,” she says. “He’s a pro at reminding me that I will be OK and that yes, it was in a number of places, but just a little bit everywhere.
“Things could have been much worse and is for so many others diagnosed. You hear you have ‘cancer’ and you automatically think death sentence. He spent countless hours, yes hours, with my family and I to explain the disease in depth and why ‘terminal’ is not always the case.”
Chemotherapy is something to be endured. “Is there a term to describe what feels worse than exhaustion physically and emotionally? If there is, that’s the one word I would use to describe the journey,” says Burford.
Here’s how she describes some of her experiences during treatment:
- “My first chemo round was by far the worst of all six rounds. I like to think it’s when my body did the most amount of ‘fighting’ as they say. Mr. Brooks (her fiancé) had to literally carry me from one room to the other while my body shook in convulsions, he literally swept me off my feet (not quite in the traditional romantic sense)!”
- “(Once) my favorite infusion nurse, Blair, asked me how I was feeling and I just fell apart. I had been so strong around everyone and just couldn’t anymore. She stopped what she was doing and came and sat with me, holding my hands and letting me know she would do everything she could to make it better.”
- “It’s not all bad days, though. There was a day I was feeling especially awesome (maybe I had extra meds that day) and was literally dancing with my infusion pole! Gene Kelly, “Singing in the Rain,” meets a day in the infusion center. Bizarre and wonderful!”
In October, she was in full remission, and left treatment with a full head of hair.
“The bad news is that my type of blood cancer is not curable. This will not be my only treatment,” she says. “When I see my oncologist every six months, we talk about ‘when’ not ‘if’. The relapse rates are high and my chances are great that I will see treatment again within the next few years.”
Unicorn team Erika Burford
Erika Burford and her team of fundraisers at a Leukemia & Lymphoma Society event.
Burford wasn't in this fight alone: She draws from a support system that includes extended family, friends, co-workers, even strangers. In her honor, she says, some supporters dyed their hair lime green (the color of the ribbons used to promote awareness of lymphoma), sent care packages, cards, gifts, knit banners, held a fundraiser campaign. A school choir serenaded her.
“Every day I saw or received something to remind me I wasn’t alone,” she says.
The last day of chemotherapy is Bell Day, when the patient rings a bell to note the end of treatment. On her final day, she was met at the infusion center by a host of friends and family.
“I’d never been given a surprise party before and it was frankly the best one I could have ever received,” she says.
That was Team-E Unicorn at work.
It was a magical moment, appropriate for a team of supporters with a whimsical name, but it’s power is quite real, says Burford. She’d had a longstanding fondness of all things unicorn since childhood, so much so that it was an inside joke within the family. With her diagnosis, the name was a natural.
Now, Team-E Unicorn is seeking to help others, raising money to find a cure for cancer through the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society. Burford and her team are one of nine in Virginia competing in the society’s annual Man and Woman of the Year event. Each dollar donated counts as a vote for a team.
The national campaign raised more than $32.5 million last year. The Virginia chapter will celebrate its campaign with a gala in the Altria Theater on May 21, according to Ann Flippin, senior campaign manager for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society in the Richmond area. Winners will be announced and the event also will feature a dinner, drinks and live and silent auctions.
Flippin said that the Virginia effort raised $340,000 last year and that the goal for the current campaign is $400,000. About 78 percent of money raised by the society goes to research and patient services.
The teams compete in honor of local children who have survived blood cancers. You can learn more about the fundraiser and the other teams here. Their individual stories are just as compelling as Burford's.
The candidates are chosen through a nominating committee, staff and community leaders, according to Flippin. She said that Burford "has inspired many to fundraise and support LLS. Because of her extraordinary dedication and passion, we were honored to nominate her to join this year's candidate class."
Team-E Unicorn events include the screening of a movie that you’d expect to be a favorite for a unicorn lover, “The Princess Bride.” It will be screened on April 30 at the Byrd Theatre in Carytown, in conjunction with Susan’s Heroes, a fundraising team founded by Susan Reid, a 10-year survivor of non-Hodgkin lymphoma.
“The Princess Bride” has been a favorite of Burdord’s since childhood.
“It has always been a go-to sick day movie for me and my sis,” she says. “We could probably recite more than half of the film by heart.”
Team-E Unicorn has already raised $11,000 before Man and Woman of the Year. Burford hopes to double that amount through the campaign.
“This opportunity I have been given by The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society is a once in a lifetime chance to make a huge impact on the war on cancer and I am not taking it lightly,” she says.
Burford hopes Richmonders take the unicorn by the horn and help out to find a cure, but also that it brings about even greater change, too.
“Catching the charity bug is an incredible feeling and once you start giving and volunteering you never stop,” she says. “Everyone has a charity that is close to their heart, make this the year that you too become a voice. Monetary contributions make a huge impact in the efforts and likewise volunteering. Every dollar, every minute counts. Cancer ends with us, all it takes is a little bit of magic.”
A GREAT DECISION
I’m having a conversation with myself, and you should, too.
I’m trying to ask myself what I want done in the event of an extreme healthcare situation, and I’m working through an Advanced Care Planning Guide from Honoring Choices Virginia. It’s a little workbook that asks you to consider your preferences should you face a terminal illness or similar situation. When would you want your doctors to switch from trying to keep you alive to keeping you comfortable? How important a consideration is cost in your medical care? How would you want medicine used to keep you comfortable? What are your spiritual needs? Who should you choose to make healthcare decisions for you if you are unable?
These are issues most everyone will eventually face, and it’s good to get a head start on them. It will make it easier on your loved ones if you plan now.
Honoring Choices Virginia is a joint program offered by HCA Virginia, Bon Secours and VCU Health through the Richmond Academy of Medicine. The health systems are offering several events where you can learn more about advance planning as part of an awareness campaign in advance of April 16, National Healthcare Decision Day.
The first session is from 8:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Wednesday at VCU Health System’s main hospital’s Conference Room 427, 1250 E. Marshall St.
A session is offered from 6:30 p.m. to 8 p.m. on Wednesday, April 13, in the Forest Conference Room at Henrico Doctors’ Hospital, 1602 Skipwith Road.
On Friday, April 15, chaplains will be available in the following Bon Secours facilities: Memorial Regional (8260 Atlee Road, Mechanicsville); Richmond Community (1500 N. 28th St.); St. Francis Hospital (13710 St. Francis Blvd.); and St. Mary’s Hospital (5801 Bremo Road).
A session will be offered from noon to 12:30 p.m. on Monday, April 18, at the Stalker Auditorium in Johnston-Willis Hospital, 1401 Johnston-Willis Drive. Other HCA sessions will be held from 10 a.m. to 11:30 a.m. on Tuesday, April 19 in the boardroom of Retreat Doctors’ Hospital, 2621 Grove Ave., and at 2 p.m. to 3:30 p.m. on Tuesday, April 19, in the MOB III classroom at Parham Doctors’ Hospital, 7700 E. Parham Road.
Registration is required. Email firstname.lastname@example.org to register.