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Erika Carter

With cancer behind her, it’s back to school again for this teacher

Don’t miss the video at the end of this blog to see Erika talk about her treatment journey at the Markey Cancer Center.

Dealing with a classroom full of rowdy second-graders can be taxing on even the most patient, energetic individual.

But for 42-year-old Versailles schoolteacher Erika Carter, her real challenges have happened outside the classroom. In the summer of 2015, she visited her doctor for her yearly checkup and bloodwork, which yielded some bad news: an anomaly in her white blood cell count.

Months of monitoring and referrals followed, including a bone marrow biopsy. Her white blood cell count continued to drop, and on Sept. 24, 2015, she received a call telling her to immediately come to the emergency room at the UK Albert B. Chandler Hospital. She would not go back to teaching for the rest of the year.

“I was numb,” Carter said. “I just kind of didn’t have any feelings at that point. I just couldn’t believe that my world was completely rocked.”

Carter was diagnosed with acute promyelocytic leukemia (APL), a subtype of acute myeloid leukemia. Dr. Gerhard Hildebrandt, a UK Markey Cancer Center blood and marrow transplantation hematologist and Carter’s physician, says the good news is that this type of cancer is usually curable with fast intervention. And in Carter’s case, the cancer was discovered very early, which boded well for her treatment.

“It’s characterized by a certain genetic change, which fortunately allows this disease to have a higher cure rate than other leukemias,” Hildebrandt said.

Getting through treatment

Over the next nine months, Carter underwent 128 chemotherapy treatments, including a 19-day stint as an inpatient at Markey. Throughout her journey, she built a good relationship with the nursing team that took care of her.

“They are always upbeat and friendly,” she said. “All across the board, the nurses were fabulous. I’ve gone back several times to see them. I really had a good experience.”

Hildebrandt agreed and said the communication between patients and his team is one of the strengths of the program at Markey.

“The team is not too big, so everybody knows the patients quite well,” Hildebrandt said. “Communication is very easy both between the patient and the care team and between the care team itself. I think it gives a level of personalized care.”

Erika and Dr. Hildebrandt

Erika Carter and Dr. Gerhard Hildebrandt.

Carter was lucky that she had minimal side effects after chemotherapy, so she tried her best to keep on with much of daily life. She took advantage of some of Markey’s integrative medicine options, including Jin Shin Jyutsu and art therapy, but says the hardest thing for her during the treatment was not being able to go outside.

“I’d look out the window and see everyone going to the UK game,” she said. “I love going to the UK games, so just watching them, I felt like this prisoner. … Luckily, I had a huge support system with my friends, family and church.”

Back to school

This time last August, Carter was just getting back to work after nearly a year off. Coming from a family of educators, she carries a love for teaching in her blood and was eager to get back to the Southside Elementary classroom she’s been teaching in for six years. She says she’s inspired by her students who motivate her to carry a positive attitude throughout the day.

“I’ll tell you what – with teaching, you just really can’t have a bad day,” Carter said. “I love the children, they make me laugh. I could have a rough day, but I’ve got to check that at the door and I’ve got to walk in and put that smile on my face for these kiddos. … I want it to be just a fun experience for them, to love learning and love education.”

Although her students are young, Carter says that many of them had some understanding of what she had gone through. She has a picture that says “We love Ms. Carter” and a banner signed by the entire school that she hung at the hospital.

“They were great, so great, in welcoming me back,” she said. “I’m just glad I had a story where I was able to come back, and [the students] are like, ‘Okay, people can have cancer, but they also survive it, too.'”

The importance of preventive care

In fact, at the end of the 2017 school year, Carter invited Hildebrandt to come visit her class and give her students a quick lesson on what cancer is and what doctors do to treat it.

“It’s a fantastic honor to be here,” Hildebrandt said. “When you have a patient who does remarkably well and then goes back to daily life, like Erika with her kids in this classroom, it’s the reward for the entire team.”

Carter describes the circumstances around her diagnosis as a “blessing,” noting that her case could have turned out very differently if she’d neglected to get her physician-recommended preventive care.

“It is very important to get preventive care,” Carter said. “Sometimes when you need to get bloodwork, it’s very easy to push that aside. But thank the Lord I did go – because had I not, I would’ve ended up in a really bad state. It would’ve been possibly too late or it would’ve been a whole other road of struggle.”

Erika Carter and her students at Southside Elementary in Versailles.

Erika Carter and her students at Southside Elementary in Versailles.



Next steps:

Meet the Researcher Day

UK cancer researchers welcome middle, high school students

Middle and high school students from across the region came to UK and UK HealthCare last week for an up-close look at what it’s like to be a cancer researcher.

“Meet the Researcher Day,” hosted by the UK Markey Cancer Center and the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society (LLS), is a field trip reward given to schools in the region that successfully raise more than $1,000 for the LLS’s Pennies for Patients campaign.

This year, students from Shelby County West Middle School, Mercer County Senior High School, Henry County Middle School and New Albany High School in Indiana won the opportunity to visit the Biomedical/Biological Sciences Research Building on UK’s campus and learn more about how the money they raised for Pennies for Patients will help further cancer research.

After an introduction by UK researchers Tianyan Gao and Craig Vander Kooi, the students received a tour of different cancer research labs and learned how to use basic lab equipment. The event also featured remarks from Dr. John D’Orazio, a pediatric oncologist and cancer researcher as well as LLS Honored Hero Brad Wilson, a UK chemical engineering student and two-time leukemia survivor. The students also heard a panel discussion about careers in science featuring D’Orazio and UK students Michael Gosky and Payton Stevens.

“I think it’s important that students get to see the lab spaces, meet the researchers and understand what the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society and Markey Cancer Center mission is: The cure for cancer,” said Shelia Gustafson, campaign director for the Kentucky and Southern Indiana Chapter of LLS.

Pennies for Patients is the annual fundraiser for the Student Series of the LLS. It encourages students to collect spare change during a three-week period early in the year. Funds raised support leukemia, lymphoma and myeloma research; patient and community service; public health education; and professional education.

For this year’s campaign, 485 schools across the region participated, raising more than $400,000 – a new record. The schools participating in Pennies for Patients had to raise a minimum of $1,000 to win the chance to attend Meet the Researchers Day. The four schools at Meet the Researchers Day this year were chosen in a random drawing, raising more than $10,000 combined for LLS.

Check out the video below for highlights from this year’s Meet the Research Day.


Next steps:

  • Learn more about clinical trials at Markey, which give patients access to the most up-to-date cancer research and innovations.
  • Markey is Kentucky’s only NCI-designated cancer center, providing world-class cancer care right here in the Commonwealth. Learn more about why patients choose Markey for their cancer treatment.