Before being diagnosed with breast cancer, Erica McCray was enjoying all the things you would expect for a young adult – spending time with friends, going out, having fun. At 20 years old, she had a clear vision of her future. Erica was studying at Baltimore City Community College in their nursing program, working two jobs, and just starting out living on her own. She was enjoying life and her independence.
One day, out of nowhere, a large lump appeared on her head. Concerned, but certainly not frightened, she went to the emergency room where the medical staff attempted to drain the protrusion but no fluid was to be found. Home she went, because other than the bump on the top of her head, she felt fine. Months later, Erica found herself back in the emergency room with severe back pain. She was diagnosed with sciatica, prescribed drugs to relieve the pain, and sent home.
Erica continued working as best she could, but had to give up one job, focusing her energies on being a cashier at Wegmans and student. She wrestled with difficult choices – living with her back pain and working; relieving the pain, but working in a somewhat altered state as a result of the pain meds, or missing work all together. More often than not, she chose work and pain.
On a June evening in 2012, Erica woke in the middle of the night, unable to breathe and drove herself to Union Memorial Hospital. That was when the CT scan revealed the spots on her rib cage. Later tests would show tumors in her pelvic area, a mass on her right breast, affected lymph nodes, and lesions on her brain. Erica was diagnosed with Stage IV breast cancer.
“I was devastated.” Erica told us. “I would never believe in a million years, would never have thought it would be me. There’s no history of breast cancer in my family. I’m young. It took me a long time to be content with it, but I’m o-kay now.”
With chemotherapy, Erica’s masses shrank; she avoided having to have a mastectomy. However, the cancer spread to one of her hips, deteriorating the ball and socket. Deemed a fall risk by her medical team, Erica’s hip was replaced in 2013.
Awful heavy burdens to carry at 22. But she didn’t bear them alone. “My biggest concern was not being independent. I don’t like feeling like I’m a burden. Moving back home was a tough situation,” she said. As it turned out, her family (mom, dad, and three younger siblings) was her rock. Her father drove her to appointments whenever he could, and lifted her spirits with, “All you have to do is believe that anything is possible.” Each doted on her in their own way.
Lois Kemple, one of the nurse navigators at Union Memorial Hospital, introduced Erica to The Red Devils. Like so many other patients, Erica would not ask for help, but Lois offered a “gift” not a handout, dinner for two at the Olive Garden. And with that, the ice was broken.
“I was living on my own, was sick and was not able to pay my rent. I was on the verge of being backed up on my bills. The Red Devils paid my rent. When I couldn’t afford to put food in my house, they arranged for Moveable Feast to keep me fed. And cars don’t run on water, you know. The gas cards were very helpful!” Erica went on to say, “Just know that it plays on a patient’s heart when we know people are out there who care.”
Erica takes oral chemo drugs on a daily basis and is focused on two goals: She can’t wait to hear her doctors tell her she’s cancer free. She’s eager to return to school to finish her nursing program. She believes she will make an excellent nurse because, “ I know what it’s like to be sick, to be in pain, and to need comfort and care. I know I can do that and help others.”