Alumna Fights Cancer with Head and Heart

By Nancy J. McCann, June 26, 2018
Erin Stevens ’00 is one of only 1,000 practicing gynecologic oncologists in the country.
A woman in scrubs stands in a hospital room
(Photo provided)

“Cancer is the time to be selfish,” says Dr. Erin Stevens ’00. “It’s the time to live in the moment — to recognize how precious things are, to do those things and not put them off. My patients who understand that, and live by that, I love watching them live their lives.”

Stevens, a gynecologic oncologist at the Billings Clinic in Montana, is one of only roughly 1,000 practicing gynecologic oncologists — physicians who specialize in diagnosing and treating cancers that are located on a woman's reproductive organs  in the country. The Billings Clinic is the only hospital with this specialty full time in all of Montana, Wyoming, North Dakota and half of South Dakota and Idaho. Some patients drive over eight hours for her care. 

“What I love about gynecologic oncology is caring for a woman through the course of her cancer,” says Stevens. “I’m the person she sees when she’s diagnosed, the one who’s in the operating room with her and who’s going to give her chemo. I’m the person who follows her in remission until we say she’s cured, or follows her through the course of her life until she dies of cancer. That’s me. To have the patients and families trust me so much — that relationship is amazing. It’s an honor and privilege to do what I do.”

Stevens studied psychology at Ithaca College before heading to New York Medical College. A track and field standout, she held the school records for shot put and 20-pound weight throw. “Coach Jim Nichols was a huge positive influence on my college career and my life,” says Stevens. “He really made sure you followed your passion. Ithaca College and the town of Ithaca made me into the person I am today. I learned so much from the open-minded community.”

“Life will be different from the moment someone tells you, you have cancer. Your life will never be the same. But, the good side of cancer? Cancer teaches you what’s really important in life. It teaches you that you don’t have all the time in the world. So what are the important things you really need to be doing?”

Dr. Erin Stevens ’00

“I did my residency in OB-GYN and loved the surgical aspect of it, but more importantly, I loved my patients in GYN-ONC. They were these amazing, strong women who were diagnosed with cancer, doing whatever they could to get treated and healthy. Or, if they were dying, died amazingly gracefully. It was the patients that made me fall in love with oncology.”

After completing her residency at Stony Brook University Medical Center and a gynecologic oncology fellowship at SUNY Downstate Medical Center, Stevens headed west. For the past five years she’s lived in Big Sky Country and in 2016 married a Montana native, Ryan Sherman.

Stevens took her work beyond where most would go by shaving her head in support of her patients. For the 2017 Yellowstone County Relay for Life, an annual, community-based fundraising event of the American Cancer Society, Stevens promised to go bald if her goal of $25,000 was reached. She raised nearly $31,000 and her Billings Clinic team over $38,000. At midnight on the night of relay, Stevens sat on stage with her hairdresser and her patient, Kelli Kundert, age 34 at the time, by her side. (Kelli was diagnosed with ovarian cancer in 2015. Stevens did her surgery and chemotherapy and is now following Kelli in remission.) Stevens’s long locks were donated to Pantene Beautiful Lengths, a national program that makes free, real-hair wigs for women with cancer. With her fundraising efforts, she was among the top 1,000 fundraisers in the country and the Yellowstone County Relay was again in the top 10 Relays in the world, raising over $500,000 each year for nearly the last 10 years.

A woman before and after having her head shaved

Erin Stevens before and after having her head shaved at the the 2017 Yellowstone County Relay for Life.

(Photo provided)

“It’s amazing what shaving my head means to other people and what it means to me now,” she says. “In the beginning, people were thanking me, congratulating me, telling me I looked beautiful. I would say, ‘I hope you go up to cancer patients and tell them they look beautiful.’”

“Life will be different from the moment someone tells you, you have cancer. Your life will never be the same,” Stevens says. “But, the good side of cancer? Cancer teaches you what’s really important in life. It teaches you that you don’t have all the time in the world. So what are the important things you really need to be doing?”