Tom and Nancy Chewning: Looking at cancer in a whole new light

After Tom and Nancy Chewning's daughter, Wilson, was diagnosed with breast cancer, they began to research the best treatment options for her. Their search led them to UNC Lineberger and Dr. Lisa Carey. Now with Wilson cancer-free, the Chewnings are investing in the Dr. Lisa Carey Fund for Breast Cancer Innovations so that others may also benefit from the most cutting-edge breast cancer research and treatment.

Tom and Nancy Chewning: Looking at cancer in a whole new light click to enlarge Tom, Wilson and Nancy “Cancer is a moving target,” says Tom Chewning, “But Dr. Carey has a laser-like focus on both high-level research and excellent clinical care. That’s what we want to support: the ongoing, intellectual pursuit of better outcomes."

If you’re a parent, it’s only natural that you’d want the best things in life for your child: a high-quality education, a kind and loving spouse, and, of course, the best of health and prosperity. 

So when you hear, ‘Mom and Dad, I have breast cancer,’ it completely throws you for a loop, according to Tom Chewning, a UNC alum and father to Wilson Steele, his 44-year-old daughter who lives in Greensboro with her husband Brent and sons Avery (18) and Brandon (14). 

“Wilson was diagnosed in July 2013,” says Tom.  “And we had begun to research the best breast cancer treatment options for her.  We happened to be in the North Carolina Mountains when we ran into a close friend (and UNC Lineberger Board of Visitors member) David Routh.  We told him about Wilson’s cancer, and he strongly suggested we consult with Dr. Lisa Carey at UNC Lineberger.  In fact, he was kind enough to make a phone call to her and arranged for us to meet her.  When my wife Nancy and I went with Wilson and Brent to talk with Dr. Carey at UNC, we immediately knew we were at the right place.  She’s the medical director of the UNC Breast Center, the chief of Hematology/Oncology, and the physician-in-chief of the UNC North Carolina Cancer Hospital.  She’s one of the best breast oncologists in the country.”

After reviewing Wilson’s MRI, Dr. Carey recommended that Wilson see Dr. David Ollila, surgical director of the UNC Breast Center, who performed a lumpectomy and lymph node evaluation.  The results showed Wilson’s cancer had already spread to her lymph nodes and was a Stage 3 invasive ductal carcinoma.

“Dr. Carey told me it would be best to have a mastectomy, followed by chemotherapy and radiation,” explains Wilson.  “Although it was a difficult decision, I had great trust in her.  She is a wonderful combination of intelligence, experience and research, plus she’s compassionate and caring.  I couldn’t have asked for a better doctor.”

Wilson is now cancer-free and working hard to regain her strength following a mastectomy and a nine-month course of treatment.  She walks and swims, which has given her the energy to serve others as the director of women’s ministries at Westover Church in Greensboro.  “I hope I can use my experiences to help people, to try to give back and make a difference,” Wilson says.  “I’m so grateful to have a second chance.”

Tom and Nancy are also grateful to have a healthy daughter.  So grateful, in fact, that they’ve made a $1 million gift to UNC Lineberger in support of the Dr. Lisa Carey Fund for Breast Cancer Innovations. 

“We are investing in excellence, in someone and something that will benefit so many people,” says Nancy, who has, over the past 21 years, helped various organizations raise more than $2.5 million in net proceeds to benefit breast cancer research.  “We put our total trust in Dr. Carey and her use of these funds.  She is an asset to UNC and to the people of North Carolina, and we want her work to be fully supported.  She has been a wonderful, caring doctor for our daughter.  Our hope is that this fund will ensure that many other women battling breast cancer will have access to this same great care.”

The Dr. Lisa Carey Fund for Breast Cancer Innovations is an unrestricted fund that will allow Dr. Carey and her colleagues to accelerate novel ideas in breast cancer research, while at the same time fulfilling other patient-centered priorities within the program.   One of those priorities especially meaningful to the Chewnings is the patient navigation program.  “Cancer is life-changing, and people need to be aware of the resources and support services that are available to them here at UNC,” says Tom.  “This program ensures that patients and their families receive the reassurance, encouragement and understanding they need during their cancer journey.”  Also, by naming the Fund for Dr. Carey, the Chewnings have created an ideal opportunity and vehicle for other grateful patients and their families to make gifts earmarked for Dr. Carey's work.

As Tom reflects on the past two years of his daughter’s cancer journey, he now sees UNC in a whole new light.  "As an alum who has supported a number of different areas of the university over many years, I can’t believe it has taken me so long to understand what an amazing cancer center UNC Lineberger is.  World-class minds are engaged in cutting-edge research and technology which are having a significant, positive impact on the lives of people in North Carolina and throughout our nation.  Nancy and I can’t think of a better place to support with our dollars.  We would encourage anyone who loves Carolina and their fellow citizens to join us in giving to UNC Lineberger.”