Erna Lewis was like many women-a wife, mother, grandmother, and friend to many. She worked full time in Rochester, New York, had a strong faith in God, and lovingly devoted herself to caring for her family. On May 25, 2005, her life changed dramatically when she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. After surgery and treatments, she believed she could just continue with her life as before.
Unfortunately, the cancer returned in 2006. Determined to make every effort to fight her disease, she underwent an experimental trial whereby her body was heated to 103 degrees for six hours before chemotherapy was administered. She felt that she not only was fighting for her life, but for all the women who had yet to be diagnosed. As a result, she was chosen as one of Roswell Park Cancer Institute's 2006 Stars of Hope.
Erna decided to help other women experiencing the same fear and anxiety she did when she was newly diagnosed. She founded Erna's Hope, a nonprofit organization dedicated to educating women about the signs and symptoms of ovarian cancer and supporting women who are newly diagnosed with it. Erna assembled "Comfort Bags" to help newly diagnosed women, filled with personal care items, a CD player with soothing music, a head scarf and hat when chemotherapy causes hair loss, and many other items. Although some items were donated, Erna and friends made and sold teal blue (the signature color for ovarian cancer) beaded bracelets to raise money for the Comfort Bag contents that had to be purchased. Erna delivered them to a chemo lab in Rochester specializing in treating women with ovarian cancer and would often sit and talk with them to give them support.
Erna made it her mission to tell as many people as possible about ovarian cancer. The cards placed with the beaded bracelets contained some information about the disease. She was interviewed several times both by television stations and newspapers. She spoke to female students at Thiel College in Pennsylvania. She participated in the 2007 American Cancer Society's "Relay for Life" in Rochester for cancer survivors and their supporters. She joined Gilda's Club and participated in their support groups and annual fashion show. Erna organized a concert and two bowling tournaments to not only raise money for her mission but to raise awareness about ovarian cancer. The Erna's Hope organization was USA Weekend's "Make a Difference Day" winner in Rochester, NY, in 2007.
In 2007 Erna underwent chemotherapy yet again. She and her husband Scott moved to Arizona in the Fall, where Erna continued her chemotherapy and was declared in remission in November 2007. She continued her outreach there, delivering subs to chemo labs, talking with those undergoing chemotherapy, and making and selling bracelets. She continued her leadership and frequent contact with her Erna's Hope organization in Rochester.
However, in January 2008 her cancer returned yet again and another round of chemotherapy was begun. Regardless, Erna continued to make plans for the future, believing she could win the battle yet again. When asked how she could keep doing so much for others, she replied that if she kept running, the cancer couldn't catch her. Sadly, cancer finally did catch her--Erna passed away on March 18, 2008, at age 49.
It was Erna's dream that every woman would know the signs and symptoms of ovarian cancer so that they could be tested and treated early, when it is most curable. She wanted women with this cancer to know that others care about them and support them. The members of Erna's Hope will continue her mission in her honor until women no longer have to fear "the disease that whispers."