When she was a teenager battling cancer, Erika Rucks said she felt invincible. But the 40-year-old's more recent diagnosis of incurable breast cancer came with an acute sense of fragility.
"I know what I can lose versus back when I was 15," she said, reflecting on her Hodgkin's lymphoma diagnosis right before Christmas of 1994.
"I have a husband and I have three young children and I know exactly what I have to lose."
Rucks was diagnosed with stage 4, metastatic breast cancer in the summer of 2019. She started off 2020 on somewhat of a high note, however, with a PET scan in January showing the cancer was dormant following six months of treatment.
"Getting a terminal prognosis has changed my perspective," she said. "It has made me realize that I have a limited amount of days on this planet. I need to go out there and I need to go and see the world and need to have those experiences now before it's too late."
So her co-workers at Minnesota Masonic Children's Hospital — where Rucks has worked for nearly 17 years as an oncology nurse — held a bake sale, raising enough money to pay for the entire family to go to Disney World for a week in late February. Rucks, her husband, Chris, and daughters, ages 10, 7 and 4, left their Andover home for a much-needed vacation rather than wait around until spring break to fly south.
Then the pandemic hit.
"It was just a matter of pure luck because I had booked that trip … well before we knew anything about coronavirus," she said. "I don't want to put off any more memory-making events."
Despite being immunocompromised, Rucks continues putting on her scrubs three days a week to care for young cancer patients. She said it never occurred to her to stop.
"It was a kind of scary time back in March. But as a nurse … that's what you're trained to do," she said. "Kind of like (how) the military goes and does their thing when there's a war going on, the health care industry when there's a pandemic, we just go forth and we do our best to treat this coronavirus."
Rucks said she won't let COVID-19 or a grim cancer diagnosis get in the way of living her life.
"Today's" Pink Power series highlighted Ruck's work as a pediatric oncology nurse while battling her own diagnosis. On live TV she was gifted a 2020 Ford Explorer she plans to use for many family road trips.
Another unexpected silver lining of 2020: Rucks was named the Hometown Hero by the Minnesota Vikings and blew the Gjallarhorn ahead of the Oct. 18 game against the Atlanta Falcons. The recognition was in honor of Crucial Catch, a partnership with the NFL and American Cancer Society to fight cancer and catch it early.
Rucks said she thought breast cancer was a diagnosis in older women and was clueless that she could get it at age 39. To learn that it was already stage four, having spread to her spine within weeks, was difficult to process.
"Telling my children was probably one of the worst days of my life and probably the second worst day of my life was after finding out that I had metastatic disease," she said.
While there is lot of awareness and research on breast cancer, Rucks said very little focuses on metastatic. Only about 7% of research funding goes toward the disease that kills 115 women per day, she said.
About 27% of women live five years after diagnosis, but Rucks doesn't let that statistic define her.
"I'm a human being, I'm not a statistic. So why can't that 27% be me? So I'm just going to live my life thinking I'm going to be in that 27% and then we'll get to five years and then we'll see what happens after that," she said.
Cancer has been a common thread not only throughout her own battles but in standing alongside those in their fight.
As a 15-year-old high school freshman at East Bethel, she was diagnosed with Hodgkin's lymphoma. She lost all her hair and missed out on months of school for treatment.
It wasn't until the summer of 1996 that she was finally in remission after treatment at the former Hubert H. Humphrey Cancer Center at Unity Hospital.
That experience is why Rucks decided to go into oncology. She went to college and ended up working at the Masonic Cancer Clinic and got to see firsthand what the nurses did there.
"I knew that was my path, not being a doctor. It was my path to be a nurse and I knew it was going to be oncology nursing."
She thought she would work with adults but ended up getting hired at the University of Minnesota in the pediatric oncology unit.
"I've been there ever since," she said. "I fell in love from the time I started as a nursing assistant, all through the time that I was in nursing school and I elected to stay there for an additional 14 years."
Rucks plans on continuing to do the work, in between treatment, parenting and, she hopes, more traveling in 2021. The Ruckses are planning a trip to Hawaii in the spring.
"I don't want to put it off," she said, "because I don't know if I'm going to have too many more tomorrows."