'I Will Fight This'

Hollis Youngner has late-stage cancer, but it does not define her

By Mayo Clinic Staff

Hollis Youngner, 37, has late-stage cancer, but it does not define her. Her greatest inspiration is her daughter, Hayes, but Hollis has become an inspiration for thousands.

The life and loves of Hollis Youngner, 37, pulse throughout her home in St. Simons Island, Georgia, on a sunlit summer morning. On the dining room table, her 7-year-old daughter, Hayes, pieces together an intricate jigsaw puzzle. On a nearby chair, amid curios on the walls and in the living room from Hollis' career as a teacher and her survival of breast cancer, her parents, Pete and Cappy Livezey, recount the story of how they first met. A few moments later, her husband, Josh, appears from his office downstairs to enjoy a takeout lunch from the family's favorite bodega.

Who could blame Hollis for savoring a moment like this? A little more than three years ago, a team of critical care physicians, nurses and other staff at Mayo Clinic worked in what her father calls "controlled chaos," trying to restart her heart. For 45 minutes, the team performed CPR on Hollis and delivered other treatments to unclog a pulmonary embolism caused by cancerous fluid around her heart.

That time and teamwork — the hallmarks of the Mayo Clinic Model of Care — made all the difference for Hollis. It not only brought her back to life, but it continues to serve her as a patient of the Robert and Monica Jacoby Center for Breast Health on Mayo Clinic's Florida campus, where she is receiving ongoing care for metastatic breast cancer.

Hollis visits the center every week for team-based care from medical oncologist Alvaro Moreno Aspitia, M.D.; radiation oncologist Laura A. Vallow, M.D.; and a cadre of other professionals. During the past three years, with the support of this team, her family and her faith, Hollis has beat back more than 20 different occurrences of cancer spread, to multiple organs, including four cancerous lesions on her brain.

Most recently, it's been a roller coaster. At the beginning of the summer, she had almost no signs of cancer in her body and two lesions in her brain. Less than two months later, new imaging tests revealed signs of more cancer, including two new lesions in her brain. Nonetheless, Hollis maintains her faith and confidence in the Mayo Clinic Model of Care.

"My Mayo team is my dream team," says Hollis. "I wouldn't be here without them, and I have so many people to thank — the critical care team, my breast cancer team, the nurses and the researchers, who I'm hopeful will continue to develop new treatments to save my life."

Timeless Care and Teamwork

Hollis and her family were well aware of Mayo Clinic's breast cancer expertise when they first arrived. A few years earlier, Mayo Clinic researchers made national news for a treatment breakthrough for HER2-positive breast cancer, which is Hollis' form of cancer. Hollis and her family still rely steadfastly on that expertise, but they also appreciate the difference that comes from the Mayo Clinic Model of Care, which benefactors are supporting and bolstering through endowment gifts. For Hollis' father, nothing compares to the scene he witnessed during her cardiac arrest.

"It was our first experience at Mayo Clinic, and it was unbelievable," says Pete. "It was the most organized chaos I've ever seen. Every Father's Day, I send a message to the critical care team to thank them because I have another day with my daughter."

For her physicians, the Mayo Clinic Model of Care contributes in ways both obvious and less obvious to the care of patients. John E. Moss, M.D., the critical care physician who led the team that day says, "The decision to continue CPR for 45 minutes was a judgment call. But I think our Model of Care gives us extra resources and more confidence to make decisions like that." And for Dr. Moreno Aspitia, teamwork — plus time — is the foundation for every decision he makes with patients. "Hollis is not 'my' patient," he says. "She's our patient, and we develop a treatment plan, together, with her. That takes time, but it's the best way to care for patients, especially someone with complex disease like Hollis has."

Living With No Timelines

The term cure is not typically used for patients with late-stage breast cancer, and Hollis will likely continue with oral chemotherapy every day for the rest of her life. Her regular visits to Mayo Clinic will also continue for the foreseeable future. And yet she and her family are determined to live in the moment.

Her greatest inspiration is her daughter, Hayes, who has been an "absolute trooper," Hollis says. But Hollis herself has become an inspiration. Thousands of friends and acquaintances are following her on Facebook, where she shares her cancer journey. She has also spoken to nursing students at the local college, to help them realize the impact they can have on patients.

Hollis and her family are also inspiring fundraisers for Mayo Clinic. In August, a Little League all-star team from the league her brother Rawson Livezey coaches made a $5,000 gift in honor of Hollis. And in February, Hollis made a gift herself, through her participation in the Donna Marathon Weekend — a weekend of running events in Jacksonville that raises money for breast cancer research at Mayo Clinic.

As she completed the run, which ends on the Mayo Clinic campus in Jacksonville, a familiar face was there to greet her. Dr. Moss was working that day and made his way to the finish line, which is just a short walk from the hospital room where he and his colleagues saved Hollis' life.

"I think that's been my greatest surprise about Mayo Clinic," says Pete, Hollis' father. "They just care so much for every patient. They're like family to us."

Hollis has already registered for the 2018 edition of the race. That's the plan: keep on running — keep on moving forward. "Our motto is 'attitude is everything,'" she says. "I don't want to know my timeline. I will fight this to my last breath."

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