In 2008, while caring for her mother who was undergoing treatment for metastatic breast cancer, Elburn resident Sherri McKinney asked her doctor about getting a mammogram. McKinney wanted to get the test just to “ease her mind” after her mother’s diagnosis, never thinking she had anything to worry about.
Then the unimaginable happened. McKinney’s doctor called her back and asked her to come in for additional tests. Several days later, she was diagnosed with stage 0 breast cancer, or ductal carcinoma in situ, and underwent a mastectomy at just 35 years old.
“I had no lump, no symptoms whatsoever,” McKinney, 45, said. “After I got the call, I sat in my car and cried because I didn’t know how I was going to tell my parents. I didn’t want them to worry about me. Had she [my mom] not been going through what she was going through, I wouldn’t have been so proactive. I probably would’ve waited until I was 40 to get a mammogram if she wasn’t diagnosed.”
After a difficult recovery process from the breast reconstructive surgery, McKinney has been cancer-free for 10 years. Her mother, however, passed away in 2013 after a five-year battle with cancer. McKinney said she and her family thought life was “getting back normal” when her sister, Kristina Russell of West Chicago, found a lump in her breast in 2017 at age 30.
Russell, now 32, was diagnosed with stage 2 triple-negative breast cancer in November that year. The sisters, who underwent genetic testing for the BRCA genes in 2009 and were negative, were stunned that this was happening to their family again.
“It was hard for us to believe this was a reality,” McKinney said. “We went back to a genetic counselor and asked for more testing, and shockingly, the results were negative again.”
While Russell was undergoing chemotherapy treatments, she approached McKinney about doing something to honor their mother while helping other patients. A few months later, in February 2018, Kittie’s Warriors was founded. The goal of the nonprofit, which is named after their mother, is to raise money to give grants to patients who are battling any form of cancer.
“I felt very fortunate to have the support system that I had while going though [treatment] and I know there are people out there who don’t have that. I felt like I wasn’t doing enough,” said Russell, who has successfully completed treatment.
In just over a year, Kittie’s Warriors has presented checks totaling $4,500 to five cancer patients in the Chicago area. The sisters work with social workers at cancer treatment centers to find patients in need who can use the money however they want. One woman said she could use the grant for car repairs, while another recipient received $500 in gas cards to get to and from his treatment.
“It makes you feel that you have such a profound effect on people’s lives and that there is such a greater purpose for all of us,” McKinney said. “Every day when talking to people, I get so much inspiration. My heart is full. Every time we go to an event or give a grant, you see tears, you get hugs and you share stories. We are Kittie’s warriors. She taught us how to fight and help people.”
The sisters, with the help of other family members, handmake glass-beaded bracelets and other items that they sell at craft shows, festivals and other events in the area. Each bracelet, which features a charm engraved with an inspirational message, costs $20 and comes in a variety of colors for various cancers.
Russell said that 100% of the proceeds go directly to Kittie’s Warriors and are not used to buy the craft supplies or to pay anyone.
“We’re helping all cancer patients. Breast cancer has touched us personally, but we’re looking to help patients with any type of cancer,” she said. “I will never get any money out of this. It’s not about that. It makes people feel good to know that the money they spend on a bracelet is going directly into the hands of someone who needs it. Every event we go to, we usually bring in $1,000, which is enough for one grant.”
McKinney said that she is hoping to attend even more events this year, bringing in more money that can help as many patients as possible.
“Every person that we’ve given a grant to has been so ecstatic,” she said. “We’ll be doing this forever. We want to do this until there is a cure for cancer. There are so many people who are affected. This whole thing [Kittie’s Warriors] is so new that we just want to keep building it.”
For information about Kittie’s Warriors, visit www.kittieswarriors.org.