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Cancer survivor Elizabeth Stepp is determined to go the distance

Publication: Dallas Morning News, Dallas

When you work hard to live an active, healthy lifestyle, the last thing you’d expect is a cancer diagnosis. In the case of Dallas attorney Elizabeth Stepp, it was Stage 3 invasive lobular carcinoma, a form of cancer that originates in the milk-producing glands of the breasts and spreads to other areas of the body. 

Having spent most of her early life in Texas, Stepp left to attend law school at Yale University after graduating from Texas A&M in 1990. Law degree in hand, she worked in New York City for a short time before returning to Texas, where she is now senior counsel at Oberheiden & McMurrey, LLP, in Dallas.

Seven years ago, after a friend was diagnosed with leukemia, Stepp began participating in charity runs to raise funds for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society. She ran a series of half-marathons and marathons, and while she always finished the race, she never saw much of an improvement in her running time.

Determined to become a better runner, Stepp quit smoking and lost 70 pounds, and she finally saw a marked improvement in her running times. Despite her improved health, Stepp’s husband Anthony suspected something was wrong when, in the fall of 2016, he noticed a thickness in her left breast.

A round of tests ordered by Stepp’s gynecologist finally led to a cancer diagnosis.

Stepp admits that her initial response to her diagnosis was anger. “Why me?” she asked. “What good has all this running and conditioning done for me? I’ve quit smoking, I’ve lost weight, and what has it gotten me? Cancer!”

Once the initial shock and anger passed, Stepp began coming to grips with the randomness and unpredictability of cancer. “Why me?” was replaced with “Why not me? It’s afflicted countless millions of others — why shouldn’t I be one of those targeted?”

She also realized that, in the midst of her difficult situation, there was one thing she could control. She could continue running, and that’s what she has done.

First, however, Stepp needed to undergo a double mastectomy, performed in December 2016 by Dr. Carolyn Thomas of Texas Breast Specialists-Presbyterian Dallas, one of the key doctors on Stepp’s medical team. Ironically, the day after her surgery, Stepp learned that she and three friends were among the lucky few chosen by lottery to run in this year’s Chicago Marathon. Stepp is determined not to let this opportunity pass her by, even though it means taking on two big challenges — the race and her illness — at once.

Stepp’s post-surgery treatment regimen was intense and demanding. Under the supervision of Dr. Jaya Juturi of Texas Oncology—Dallas Presbyterian, Stepp went through 16 rounds of chemotherapy from February to June 2017, followed by 28 rounds of radiation in July and August. She also received treatment with tamoxifen, a cancer medication that blocks the cancer cells’ ability to take up estrogen for survival. 

Finally, Stepp was recently admitted to a breast cancer clinical trial program. Giving patients access to research and clinical trials in their local communities without the hassle and disruption of extensive travel is a priority for Texas Oncology, a member of The US Oncology Network. Stepp is one in about 2,000 Texas Oncology patients participating in clinical trials.

Through it all, she’s continued running and training for the Chicago Marathon. Amazingly, she’s suffered surprisingly few side effects from her chemotherapy and radiation, which her doctors attribute to both her physical conditioning and her positive outlook. 

“The remarkable thing about Elizabeth is that she handled very intensive chemotherapy and medical therapy, as well as very involved surgery, while working a high-intensity, intellectual job — all with no complaints and while running throughout,” Thomas said.

In addition to drawing strength from running, Stepp appreciates the huge outpouring of support she’s received from family and friends. She acknowledges that she was hesitant to mention her diagnosis to anyone outside her family, as she prides herself on her independence. But after she announced her cancer diagnosis on her Facebook page, the support she received from coworkers, running friends and even complete strangers was immediate and overwhelming.

Stepp admits that she still has her moments of doubt and fear, especially when she lies awake at night. But in those dark moments, she also knows that when the sun rises, she will lace on her shoes, put one foot in front of the other and start running.