37-Year-Old Mom with Stage-4 Breast Cancer Helps Others Enjoy Life: 'It Empowers Me'

Photo: Jennifer Rickert

Erin Banton found very little to complain about three years ago. The mom of three boys — all under 9 years old — was married to her high school sweetheart, Travis, and working as an elementary school teacher in Traverse City, Michigan.

But life as she knew it came crashing down when she found a lump under her arm and was diagnosed with breast cancer in June 2015.

“I was shocked and kind of numb,” Banton, now 37, tells PEOPLE in this week’s issue. “I immediately went into this kind of survival mode.”

After she underwent a double mastectomy and debilitating chemotherapy, she was in remission for almost exactly two years when she felt another lump in June 2017.

“As someone in early-stage cancer, you always have in mind that your cancer is going to come back,” she says. “But I was hopeful that I would at least be in my 50s when my children were grown.”

In denial, Banton waited a few days and “dragged my feet” to the doctor’s office, where tests revealed it had metastasized to her liver, and months later, to her bones.

When doctors told her she likely wouldn’t survive more than five years, she decided then that she wouldn’t be a statistic.

“My attitude is going to play a huge role in my prognosis,” says Banton, who regularly undergoes chemotherapy. “I really feel like it’s important that I continue to live my life as fully as possible. Having stage-4 cancer isn’t going to stop me from enjoying life.”

For more on Banton’s journey, pick up the latest issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands now.

A friend created a GoFundMe page for her family with a $20,000 goal after Banton left her job in the fall to focus solely on her health and family.

Banton’s life now — which she enjoys from morning to night — is spent with her close-knit family and mentoring other women who have cancer.

“It gives me a different outlook on moments of my life that I took for granted before,” she tells PEOPLE. “When you go through something traumatic and hard like cancer, it opens your eyes to the amazing amount of life that’s in front of you.”

Almost immediately after her diagnosis, Banton began to share her story at the local Cowell Family Cancer Center, and created a Facebook page where she offers support to women worldwide.

Frequently at the side of women who have been recently diagnosed, she helps them with everything from how to handle intense treatments to how to live in the moment and find happiness.

She also finds time to speak at events and raises awareness about metastatic breast cancer, which kills 113 men and women daily, according to METAvivor. Currently, only 2 to 5 percent of funds raised for breast cancer research are focused on metastatic, but Banton is determined to change that.

“It’s not something that people really want to talk about because typically they know that people die from this,” she says. “It’s sometimes a scary conversation.”

Banton now finds joy in the things she never thought twice about before her first diagnosis. From packing “fun lunches” for sons Carter, 11, Nolan, 6, and Griffin, 4, and taking a belated honeymoon to Aruba with her husband, Travis, 39, in May, Banton lives every moment with a new outlook on life.

“I don’t live in fear anymore, she says. “I have to try something once. I’ve been able to cross a lot off my ‘bucket list’ already and some things got crossed off before I put them on the list. I still struggle but my cancer diagnosis has pushed me to stop missing the memories and get out and enjoy life more regularly.”

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