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“My first scare with breast cancer happened when I was 27,” she reveals. “I found a lump in my breast doing a self-exam. After a lumpectomy, I learned it was benign and felt an enormous sense of relief.”
Leigh’s reprieve lasted for a decade before the threat of cancer reared its ugly head again.
“When I was 37, I found a larger lump during a self-exam. Right away, an intense fear of the unknown set in. After multiple tests, scans and biopsies, I was diagnosed with stage 3 invasive ductal and invasive lobular carcinomas.”
The diagnosis was a blow for a woman who had stayed on top of her breast health screenings and preventive care.
“I was taught at a young age to do self-breast exams by my mother who worked as a registered nurse for an obstetrician/gynecologist,” Leigh explains. “She made me very aware of our family’s history of breast cancer.”
Her inner monologue reflected her angst.
“I thought, ‘I'm too young for breast cancer’ and ‘How can this happen when I've been so diligent about breast exams and mammograms?’ Then I wondered, ‘Am I going to die?’"
Eventually Leigh reconciled her frustration and fear with a stark truth about breast cancer.
“No one is too young, too healthy or too safe from the disease,” she acknowledges. “All you can do is be faithful to your self-exams and medical checkups.”
All told, Leigh has undergone more than 20 surgeries in her fight against breast cancer. The most intense was a bilateral mastectomy with the beginning of breast reconstruction.
“I went through six months of ACT chemotherapy – the strongest chemo available at the time to treat my cancers. My side effects included nausea, hair loss, bone pain, muscle aches, weakness, blisters in my mouth, and changes to my taste buds that made everything tasting like metal and infection.
“I also had six weeks of radiation therapy that triggered its own set of side effects – including extreme exhaustion, skin blistering and feeling like I had a constant sunburn.”
After radiation, there were six weeks of physical therapy sessions and medical follow-ups. The intense gauntlet taught Leigh some important life lessons.
Once you hear the words, ‘You have cancer,’ your life is never the same,” she confides.
“Over the years, I’ve met a lot of people who have become friends. Many are closer than some family members. Sadly, I’ve also lost too many to count,” she says. “You realize how precious life is, and let the small issues stay small instead of allowing them to be blown out of proportion.”
Leigh encourages others to pursue their interests and passions now rather than later. “If you want to travel, travel. If you want to learn a foreign language or try new foods, do it. Tomorrow is never promised, and you don’t want to have any regrets.”
Just as important, Leigh emphasizes self-awareness. “Don’t waste the opportunity to know your own body and save your own life. Since I was diagnosed with breast cancer, other issues have come up and I’ve gone to the doctor immediately. You can’t just hope that nothing ever happens.”
If you have been recently diagnosed with cancer, Leigh offers simple advice from a survivor’s perspective: “Put one foot in front of the other. Don’t try to fix anyone else’s problems. Focus on you. It’s not easy, but it’s something that you can get through.”
She also suggests reaching out to support groups. Often you can find one offered through the American Cancer Society, a local hospital or social media. They are good places to connect with others who are grappling with the same thoughts, fears, feelings and body changes wrought by cancer.
“If you are a supporter of someone who has been diagnosed with breast cancer, be there for them. Listen – and only listen. Don’t try to give your input if you haven’t been there because you can’t fully understand – and we would never want you to have to find out.”
Originally published 9/29/2017; Revised 2022
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