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Remembering Rhonda: ‘Her Will to Fight Kept Her Here’

Rhonda Howell knew it was a question of when, not if, breast cancer would end her life. After early-stage breast cancer spread to her spine and liver, Rhonda raised critical funds for metastatic breast cancer (MBC) research. She never lost hope that one day the disease could become curable, giving the coveted gift of more time to people like her, a wife and mother.

Rhonda passed away on Jan. 26, 2022, at 42 years old. In the final days of her life, Rhonda’s vision for a world without breast cancer never waned, her husband, Adam Howell, remembers.

“She was so passionate about the research all the way until the very end,” Adam says. “She felt it was so important for us to find the money to be able to fund the research. She did everything in her power and fought as hard as she possibly could, but it wasn’t enough to keep her here any longer.”

A North Carolina native, Rhonda graduated with an economics degree from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and pursued a career as a loan underwriter before meeting Adam. After marrying in 2011, Rhonda and Adam welcomed their son, Luke, one year later in 2012.

When Luke was 15 months old, Rhonda, then 34, was diagnosed with stage II early breast cancer. Following a double mastectomy, four rounds of chemotherapy and 35 rounds of radiation therapy, Rhonda had no signs of cancer in 2013.

“About a year and a half later in 2015, she was having a lot of back pain,” Adam remembers. “She went to a couple of different doctors to try to have it checked out. The doctors thought it was a pinched nerve, something that a lot of people that sit at a desk job get. After several weeks of pain, one morning she got out of bed and immediately fell to the floor. She was not able to get up and laid on the floor all day until having to call an ambulance.”

After being evaluated at UNC REX Cancer Care, doctors confirmed Rhonda’s cancer had returned, metastasizing to her spine. Following a surgical procedure to stabilize vertebrae in her back, further scans confirmed the cancer had also spread to her liver.

Luke was 6 years old at the time. Rhonda’s oncologist told her the average life expectancy for patients following an MBC diagnosis is three years. She vowed to make the most of every day, taking long-term disability leave from her job at Wells Fargo and soaking up every moment with Adam and Luke.

Advocating for Research

Rhonda found it fortuitous that she lived in North Carolina’s Research Triangle, the geographic area spanning Raleigh and Durham and home to three major research universities in North Carolina State University; Duke University; and her alma mater, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She started treatment at Duke Cancer Institute and resolved that cutting-edge research would help her watch her son grow up.

“She was very interested in being an advocate for research and really trying to move forward the research efforts,” Adam says. “She became a patient ambassador with Pfizer and told her story to help other metastatic breast cancer patients who were going through the same situation.”

Rhonda’s work as a patient ambassador led her to METAvivor, an MBC nonprofit organization, where she ultimately joined the Board of Directors as secretary in 2016 and started her journey to fundraising for MBC research grants. The following year, she joined forces with fellow MBC patient Kristie Rolan, who had attended a METAvivor masquerade ball in Arkansas and wanted to bring a similar event to the Triangle area.

Together with Laura Salley, who was also living with MBC, Rhonda and Adam joined Kristie as co-chairs for the inaugural Triangle Metsquerade. Laura and Kristie ultimately never saw their plans for the event come to fruition, as they both passed away from MBC in 2017, just six weeks apart.

Rhonda, emboldened by her promise to raise funds for research that might one day save women like Laura and Kristie, persevered with her plans to host the event in their memory. Held in 2018, the inaugural Triangle Metsquerade raised more than $100,000 for MBC research grants.

“I attribute Rhonda to really doing a lot of that leg work figuring out how to host an event like that. She was just so committed to the advocacy work,” Adam said. “She helped so many ladies who were battling that disease. She was able to offer her support, which was a huge relief for people who had been diagnosed with MBC and were searching for answers to their questions.”

With each year that she defied her oncologist’s odds, Rhonda’s passion for fundraising to find cures for MBC grew stronger. She and Adam again hosted the Triangle Metsquerade in 2019, raising more than $140,000 to fund MBC research grants.

Rhonda’s Legacy

Rhonda soon learned of the Susan G. Komen Metastatic Collaborative Research Initiative (MBCCRI), a first-of-its-kind collaborative effort to unite the Triangle’s leading researchers at Duke Cancer Institute and UNC Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center to find breakthrough discoveries to end MBC.

“We felt like it was a very fitting opportunity for us to partner with MBCCRI, not only because Rhonda went to Duke and REX for treatment over the years, but also because she went to UNC for college,” Adam says. “We had that all-around passion for both UNC and Duke, and it felt like the initiative was the best way to come up with the cutting-edge research, like two heads are better than one.”

Rhonda and Adam teamed up with then MBCCRI Director Pam Kohl, also an MBC patient, to co-chair Together We Thrive: A Gala for Metastatic Breast Cancer Research. The inaugural event, held virtually in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, raised $125,000 to fund MBC research grants.

Pam remembers Rhonda as a “shining light” who served as a “beacon” in the early months of her MBC diagnosis, offering support and encouragement as Pam feared for what the future would hold.

“She shared her passion and her willingness to not only raise money for research, but to answer all my questions – any time, day or night,” Pam says. “There were so many people who looked to Rhonda for advice and support.”

Rhonda passed away amidst planning to co-chair the second Together We Thrive gala. In total, she raised $375,000 to fund research grants for cures to the disease that ultimately claimed her life. Her fundraising achievements are a fitting legacy for a “warm, caring person who put others first,” Adam remembers, even on her darkest days.

“She fought cancer so hard, but she also tried so hard to help other people and stay so positive. Her strength was so inspiring to me,” Adam says. “I know for a fact that if it was myself or somebody who wasn’t as strong as she was, they would not have made it six and a half years. I think her will to fight – her determination – was what kept her here as long as it did.”

Rhonda’s determination to spend as much time as possible with Luke and Adam also spurred her on to keep fighting, which Pam saw firsthand.

“It wasn’t always about MBC with Rhonda. It was seeing her intentionally create those memories with her family, and that helped remind me to do the same. Watching her mother’s pain is something that no mother should ever have to experience. We talk a lot about the mothers who leave their children because of MBC, and we don’t talk very often about the mothers whose child left them because of MBC,” Pam said.

“This family will never be the same. There will always be a hole in their heart. No one can fill it, but we can try to stop future losses,” Pam said. “Every single day, those of us at Komen who knew and worked with Rhonda are inspired to make sure we continue to raise funds in her memory.”

Learn more about the Susan G. Komen Metastatic Collaborative Research Initiative here.

Statements and opinions expressed are that of the individual and do not express the views or opinions of Susan G. Komen. This information is being provided for educational purposes only and is not to be construed as medical advice. Persons with breast cancer should consult their healthcare provider with specific questions or concerns about their treatment.