Daily Herald American Cancer Society
Speaking up Crystal Lake woman makes a difference through advocacy

Christina Schwallie wears many hats.

The 39-year-old Crystal Lake resident is an accountant by trade, an energetic mother of four, avid marathon runner, breast cancer survivor and as of this past year, she's among a select few advocates reviewing scientific grant applications for cutting-edge breast cancer research.

As an advocate, Christina Schwallie, pictured with her four children, reviews scientific grant applications for cutting-edge breast cancer research.
As an advocate, Christina Schwallie, pictured with her four children, reviews scientific grant applications for cutting-edge breast cancer research.

Did you know?

Each year 180,000 women and men are diagnosed with breast cancer. More than 40,000 will lose their lives to the disease.

"I have a master's degree in taxation, but sitting at the table with leading scientists, doctors and research experts means learning a whole new language," says Schwallie, whose advocacy efforts include volunteer work as a part of the Susan G. Komen Advocates In Science grant review program.

A unique perspective

As a three-year breast cancer survivor and advocate, Schwallie says she and fellow breast cancer survivors bring a unique perspective to the grant review process - participating in a range of scientific activities and scientific review meetings to evaluate the clinical impact and merits of applications for research funding.

To date she has helped review 15 breast cancer research grant applications and participated along with scientists and epidemiologists in Washington D.C.-based round-table discussions and the awarding of more than $600,000 in grant monies.

"It seemed everyone around the table had an M.D. or Ph.D. or some other extremely impressive credentials following their name," Schwallie recalls. "I was more than a little nervous and initially wondered if my opinion really would count. It did. The group of 20 couldn't have been more supportive. We each had a microphone and each ranked proposals based on our own perspective."

Diagnosis was a shock

Schwallie is intimately aware of many challenges and concerns facing breast cancer patients. Her own battle began in 2005 when she first felt a small lump under her arm.

"My doctor initially suspected an irritation and prescribed antibiotics," she recalls. "However, a subsequent mammogram, ultrasound and biopsy yielded an entirely different result - I had stage 2 breast cancer."

Schwallie's diagnosis was a huge shock.

"Other than for the birth of my children, I'd never been in the hospital," she says. "Because I don't like needles, I had a real fear of what was to come and even required a sedative to get over my anxiety surrounding the initial biopsy."

Treatment included a lumpectomy and radiation therapy. Schwallie also began an anticipated five years of the drug, Tamoxifen, to help reduce the risk of recurrence.

"I was fortunate to be able to continue my morning runs throughout the course of treatment," recalls Schwallie, who has completed five marathons. "One of the most reassuring aspects of care, at least for my children, is that they came with to my radiation appointments at Centegra Northern Illinois Medical Center in McHenry. A social worker met with the children, gave them a tour and they were reassured to see me in the actual room where I was being treated."

Today Schwallie says her confidence is restored and the experience has blossomed into a passion for advocacy in behalf of others facing a breast cancer diagnosis. She participates in the Network Of Strength Advocacy, having shared her experience with legislators in Washington during annual Lobby Day visits, is active in Young Survivors initiatives and advocates for her own health by seeing her oncologist and surgeon every six months.

To prepare for her new role, Schwallie participated in a special Dallas-based Advocates In Science training and a one-week ProjectLEAD science training program developed by the National Breast Cancer Coalition to help breast cancer advocates influence research and public policy process.

Each year, Network of Strength Advocates like Schwallie, attend the Project LEAD Institute. Last year the group spent an intense week near San Diego learning basic science, the biology of cancer, genetics, and epidemiology. Sessions also highlighted key areas in science where advocates, both survivors and non-survivors, are needed and offered ways to get involved.

"We learned everything from the basic biology of how cancer cells form and grow to what's new on the treatment and research front," Schwallie recalls. "It was an intensive immersion program with a mini medical school-style curriculum."

Schwallie says sharing her experience and making a difference for other breast cancer patients through advocacy is a meaningful part of survivorship.

For information on advocacy opportunities, call Network of Strength Illinois at (312) 364-9071 or visit www.networkofstrength.org/advocacy.


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