Cancer Center at Illinois Pushing Innovation to Make a Difference

Cancer Center at Illinois Pushing Innovation to Make a Difference

By Sean McDevitt

Renae Strawbridge does not take gruff from anybody.

This retired grandmother is living proof that if you push and poke and advocate for what’s best for you, you can make a difference. It was this attitude that most likely saved her life.

Today, she continues to advocate for her health and the health of others by participating in the Cancer Research Advocacy Group (CRAG) at the Cancer Center at Illinois, helping connect patients, caregivers, and their families in ways unheard of in today’s medicine. CRAG brings researchers, clinicians, and patients to the same table to understand the other and to enhance patient’s lives.

The Cancer Center at Illinois and the Division of Intercollegiate Athletics have teamed up to designate the game “Krush Cancer” night. During the game, the Cancer Center will showcase their programs, honor advocates, and outline their plans for the future.

Cancer is the second-leading cause of death in Illinois and the US. Luckily, Strawbridge is a cancer survivor. Her story is one of inspiration and fighting for oneself and, ultimately, for others.

“I was very fortunate.”

Her career at the University of Illinois started at what was then called the Illinois State Geological Survey for 30 years.

During her time at the Illinois State Geological Survey, she was diagnosed with early-stage breast cancer. Her supervisor, Debra A. Griest, was instrumental in making sure her employment was safeguarded so she could go through her treatments.

“(Griest) had had colon cancer three years before I was diagnosed with breast cancer,” Strawbridge said. “She knew some of the journey and guided me through, for which I am forever grateful.”

Strawbridge has a family history of breast cancer. Both her paternal grandparents, her grandmother, and grandfather, died from breast cancer. It was recommended she start imaging 10 years prior to the earliest diagnosis. With the family history, she was smart enough to keep an eye out for any abnormalities or changes.

“My first mammogram resulted in something abnormal. We want to see you again in three months.’ By Sunday, I was a basket case. I couldn’t wait any longer. I called my physician first thing Monday morning.”

Her phone call resulted in new imaging and an ultrasound. It was the ultrasound technician who found the breast cancer tumor.

“I was very fortunate there was a physician in the department doing a biopsy that day at that very moment,” said Strawbridge. “She came in and wanted to do a biopsy sooner than later.”

The results came back as ductal carcinoma-breast cancer. Her first thought through her head was, “I’m going to die.”

“Time’s on my side. I want to keep it there.”

After spending time talking through various treatments with the oncologist, Strawbridge wanted to start fighting right away. She couldn’t sit back and wait. She needed to do something and waiting around was not an option.

“I said to the doctor, ‘Okay, where do we go from here?’ He said, ‘Well, I want you to talk with the surgeon.’ I said, ‘Okay. I want to do that tomorrow.’ He looked at me, looked at my face, and picked up the phone. He made a doctor-to-doctor phone call right there in the exam room. He set me up for an appointment the next day with the surgeon.”

Three weeks later, she had the surgery where the doctors successfully removed a nine by 11 by 14-millimeter triangular-shaped tumor. Post-lumpectomy, she was put on four rounds of chemotherapy of Adriamycin and Cytoxan, which she lovingly calls the “full meal deal” plus steroids and anti-nausea drugs.

All of it saved her life.

“Many people are afraid to ask the questions.”

Moving forward, Strawbridge had a desire to help others in a similar situation. With cancer research, she wanted to help in any way possible.

“I participated in a clinical trial because I believe every piece is a key to unlock the puzzle,” said Strawbridge. “That was driven home to me, working in a research organization for almost 30 years. I believe in research because research advances our society. It advances our healthcare, which advances our quality of life.”

In 2016, Strawbridge heard Dr. Eric Nelson speak at a cancer survivor’s dinner hosted by the American Cancer Society. In his presentation, he had an idea about starting an advocacy group. She was inspired to find a way to merge advocacy and research with a patient voice.

“I want the clinicians, the patients and the researchers to all be at the same table at the same time talking about what we’re doing, why we’re doing it and how it affects patients. If you’re the doctor or you are the researcher, you have no idea how living without hair, although for only six months, affects your everyday life.”

Strawbridge understands the system can be daunting, and asking for what you want can be difficult. She says, “Many people are afraid to ask the questions. I’m not afraid. I may be labeled a troublemaker. I don’t know. I don’t care.”

“That’s a very important four-letter word, hope.”

Supporting the Cancer Center and the research they are doing is essential, and there are several things you can do to help. From becoming an advocate, participating in a clinical trial, to fundraising, Strawbridge feels everyone can be involved. Just having the Cancer Center located in Champaign-Urbana is significant.

“I think having a Cancer Center in our backyard, as part of a university that’s globally recognized, gives some peace of mind and hope. That’s a very important four-letter word, hope. That research in breast cancer and all cancers can be ongoing, can be productive, and can hopefully, at some point in time, lead to more effective treatment with less invasive procedures and remedies and prevention. That’s the hope.”

Originally published at on February 21, 2020.