My Breast Cancer Survivor Story
Updated: Oct 13, 2021
Humanizing the Headset has developed a theme for the month of October: Dispatcher Health Awareness. We are going to be discussing physical and mental health issues that affect us and the communities we serve. Our goal is to enhance the awareness of these issues so that we are better equipped to handle them in both our personal and professional lives.
This very special story comes to us from fellow dispatcher, Leslie White, a breast cancer survivor. We'll also be hearing from her amazing children, Danielle and Nicole. Please leave comments on your thoughts and personal experiences, and share with your friends to get them involved in the conversation as well.
When I was asked by friend and fellow co-worker, Brendhan, to share my story on breast cancer for Humanizing the Headset, I was thrilled and honored. The word CANCER can immediately silence a room. It makes people feel awkward. They don't know what to say, so they avoid you, or they say nothing. To be diagnosed can make you feel fearful and it certainly makes you think about death, but you shouldn't allow any medical scare or diagnosis to determine if you have lived life to its fullest potential.
My diagnosis came at the most inopportune time, but is there ever a good time for cancer? Probably not, but my cancer came at a time when I needed to divert my attention elsewhere. As you read my story you'll understand why. This includes men's experiences as well. Men actually have a higher mortality rate than women, because they don't realize they too should be examining their breasts for changes or lumps. Every October, I preach to anyone that will listen: check your boobies, and if you're a female 40 or over, get a mammogram.
As telecommunicators, we are not your average person. We hear more stories of pain and trauma and take care of so many other people, but do we take the proper care of ourselves? Do we find ways of destressing? Do we eat healthy, exercise regularly, and go to our doctor preventative maintenance? Probably not. Why wouldn't we? We assist people in getting the help and assistance they need daily, so why do we often neglect ourselves? Many of us have partners, spouses, children, pets, and maybe even elderly parents or grandparents we help, which leaves us little time for ourselves. I hope my story enlightens and encourages you to take time for your yearly check-ups.
My story begins one beautiful August day in 2006. It was the day my husband and I decided it was time to take a break from our 18-year marriage. It was one of those days that becomes a blur and you sometimes fight to remember all the little details, but you remember the main one: our marriage was over. I remember thinking it was a little bit of a relief, as things hadn't really been going well. I had been doing everything possible to try and save a marriage that couldn't be saved. I was stressed between the marital issues, my children's activities, and the struggles of adapting to a promotion at work. Add the split and I was a walking disaster.
I couldn't sleep or think, and everything was a blur. People either didn't know what to say or they'd say, “oh, you'll work it out.” The big secret, while not part of my story to tell back then, was that we would never be able to salvage the marriage.
My former husband, Rick, was gay.
Yes, you read that correctly, he is gay. Now that's an entire different story, but the day he told me, it was as if a weight lifted off my shoulders. It was that day that I realized he loved me as much as he was capable of loving me. I realized that my entire life was going to change, and I was now solely responsible for taking care of myself and my two daughters, Danielle and Nicole. They were devastated by the split and old enough to be told the truth about their father. It was a lot to digest.
September started off with counseling for the girls and I, and a trip for myself to the gynecologist followed up by the mammogram I had been putting off because I was way too busy. I was due for my annual check up and since I neglected to get a mammogram when I turned 40, I figured I should just go ahead and get it out of the way. The reason they want you to get your mammogram at 40 is so they have a baseline to follow for future tests. The lump could have just been calcium or normal hardness, but if I had it checked at 40 they may have been able to detect it sooner.
A week later, I was called back into the doctor’s office to go over the results. At that time I had no idea that wasn't routine. He said they had found a small lump and wanted to do a biopsy on it. He also said that he felt it was probably nothing to worry about. While a little unnerved by it, I went for the biopsy and was told it was cancerous.
I went numb.
I was less than 3 weeks out of an 18-year marriage, I had a new position at work, and my children needed me now more than ever. I did not have time for this thing they called cancer! The remainder of September was spent with doctor’s appointments, and all the while I kept all this to myself because this was the last thing my kids needed.
My first visit with the oncologist didn't go so well. I was in denial. As a telecommunicator, have you ever had the parent of a loved one that was in total denial about the addict, depressed person, or sex offender? Well, that was me. As clear as day I remember sitting there saying I wouldn’t undergo treatment. I wasn't suicidal or depressed, I was just scared to death and I already had too much on my plate. Damn it cancer! I don't have time for this! So, the doctor spoke of different treatment plans. He told me to go home and talk about it with my family and to schedule an appointment for the following week.
After I left,I sat in my car and cried. My children hadn’t even recovered from our separation and now this? And why were they rushing me? It was like they wanted to operate tomorrow. I needed time to think this over, but I didn’t have any. They were gracious enough to send me home with a gigantic three-ring binder. I called it the "Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Cancer and More” binder, and between the blurred lines I read how people will be different around you, that they won't know what to say. Well, that was certainly an understatement! I begrudgingly made an appointment to have a lumpectomy, four rounds of chemotherapy, and 30 days of radiation and I still hadn't told a soul.
It's now October 2006, and almost time for the annual Columbus Day camp trip. To keep things as "normal" as possible for the girls, Rick had agreed to take them and I would meet up with them for the last couple days. I knew the surgery date was drawing near and I really needed to tell them sooner rather than later, but there just never seemed to be a good time. At the time I honestly felt it would be a good time to tell the girls on the camping trip because there would be so many distractions to help keep their minds off of it. It was probably the worst timing ever, but then again is there really a good time to say, "Hey, I have cancer?"
Our campsite was right along a hiking path that hugged the shoreline of the lake. The girls and I turned it into a haunted path and carved pumpkins and, all in all, we made some wonderful memories that weekend. It gave me a whole new perspective on my future with my daughters. It's important that I add that Rick was supportive and comforting during all of this. Please understand that I'm not trying to be easy on him, but he was also dealing with a lot of his own issues with his parents, siblings, friends, and co-workers regarding his lifestyle.
The following week, Rick took me for the lumpectomy. While I wasn't exactly sure what was going on, as it was moving way too fast, I tried my best to understand it all. I journaled a lot because I was afraid I'd forget something. The doctor said I had nice, clean margins (the extra radius around the cancer that is removed to ensure no residual cancer cells remain) and no lymph nodes were affected. This was an outpatient surgery, so I was free to go home afterward.
As the evening progressed, I realized I was allergic to the liquid bandage the doctor used. I decided I’d better call him, and he gave me two options: go to the ER, or take nail polish remover to the adhesive. Now remember, I'm newly single trying to live off a meager salary, so not only did I not have time for this cancer shit, I literally could not afford it either! So I chose the cheaper of the two choices - not because I'm tough, but because I'm broke.
Let me ask, have you ever had a minor cut or hangnail and gotten nail polish remover in it? For men, it would be the equivalent of getting alcohol in a cut or scrape. It burned like hell. There I was, standing in the bathroom with tears streaming down my face, pouring nail polish remover over this two-inch incision. I thought there wasn't a God, and if there was, I wasn't very fond of him. What had I ever done to deserve this? When the burning subsided, I was finally able to realize that the itching had stopped. Ah, relief at last!
Two weeks later, the incision healed and it was time to start chemo. In the room sat about half a dozen people of all ages with IV's or ports full of chemical cocktails being pumped into their bodies. The reality of this was now starting to set in. The nurse had me take a seat as she explained the process. They started an IV, gave me a shot to relax me, and then started the chemo. The entire process took about an hour.
So, this was my first encounter with lorazepam, the medication to help me relax. About two minutes after she gave me the shot, I felt this euphoria over take me. I felt like I was intoxicated and everything became slightly funny. Treatment finished, I got up to leave and realized I was higher than a kite! I’m one of those people who don't like to feel out of control and that's exactly how I felt. I made a mental note for next time: no lorazepam!
The entire purpose of chemo is to kill the bad cells, also known as the fast-growing cancer cells. At the same time, it can decrease your white blood cells which weakens your immune system and increases your risk of infection. To help my body produce and increase white blood cells, I had to give myself a shot of a medication called Neulasta 24-hours after chemo. I had to take this in order to be able to continue with chemo treatments every two weeks. I chose to have chemo on Fridays so it would give me the weekend to regain my strength and I wouldn't miss too much work.
That first Saturday morning I gave myself the shot in my thigh and almost instantly my palms begin to itch, followed by my feet, and my breathing felt labored. I feel like I want to crawl out of my skin, I've got big red hives and I realize I'm having an anaphylactic reaction to the Neulasta. One call to rescue not only produced an ambulance, but Rick and, of course, my Mom. Gotta love that my fellow co-workers took the initiative to notify my family. Maybe they knew I was too proud and wouldn't have called them, or that I wasn’t able to call them, or maybe a higher power knew I needed them. I remember rescue trying to maneuver the snow-covered steps and thinking "Damn, I should have shoveled." The last thing I remember hearing was "We need to stabilize her before we can transport,” followed by a shot of epinephrine. The next thing I remember is waking up in the ER of Northern Illinois Medical Center. It became my home for the next five days.
Neulasta is time released, so everytime it activated I broke out in hives. So much for white blood cell boosters, I was now on my own to rebuild the white blood cells. Chemo treatments were pushed out to three to four weeks, or whenever my white blood cell count was high enough to withstand the next treatment. This meant chemo dragged on through Christmas and New Years.
My second treatment brought on hair loss, so my friend, Pattie, took me wig shopping. Long, short, blond, black - the choices were limitless. I hated all the wig options. None looked natural and my scalp was already fairly sensitive to the touch. So I went with a shocking pink bob. Yep, shocking, hot pink. I had no intentions of really wearing it, but I thought it would help keep my spirits up and provide some laughs with the girls as well. The pink wig only made one public appearance and I think my daughter might expand on that.
Within days I was bald, and I was in awe of how smooth and perfect my little head was. Over time the girls would rub it like you'd rub the belly of a budha. Most of the time I wore bandanas, because my head was so small that my choices were limited to the kids section. Eventually, I found a couple knit caps that kept me nice and warm on those chilly winter days and nights. Treatments three and four were uneventful so it was on to radiation.
Radiation began with the doctors marking my skin with what looked like boring little tattoos. They were actually radiation markers, put there so they knew just where to aim. I drove to Lake Forest Hospital every morning before work for my treatment and I was lucky enough to get the weekends off. I did this for 30 days. It was exhausting, and my kids were probably just as exhausted from picking up the slack for the past 6 months. They both were in high school at the time, so they'd go to school, do their thing, then come home and basically take care of themselves. They did their own laundry, the housework, and the majority of the cooking. I'd get home with barely enough strength to crawl into bed.
My best friends Pattie, Patsy, and Rick continued to be of support and helped tote the kids around to practices and whatever they needed. My co-workers at the State's Attorney's Office were amazing and helped me get through the daily work routine, along with a giant bottle of hand sanitizer on the corner of my desk. They all did their best to keep my work station germ free. April showers brought the typical spring things: leaves sprouting, tulips, lilacs and I, too, had the finest, softest, curliest fuzz growing on my head.
You know what those 6 months brought me? A stronger and loving relationship with my two beautiful daughters. Had my oncologist not asked if I wanted to see my daughters graduate or get married, I may have not sought treatment. That's how low of a priority I was to myself. I had to realize that it wasn't all about me. The decisions I made affected others as well, and my journey has created two of the smartest, kindest, and most loving daughters. And while I may have been super pissed at my ex, he stood by my side. My two friends, who may have felt awkward and didn't know what to say (sometimes the drive was silent and sometimes we laughed all the way), were there for me every step of the way. Today I feel so blessed to have had so many people to help me get through this.
Earlier I mentioned if there was a God he wouldn't have put me through this. Today, I believe there is a God and I was chosen to go through this. I was chosen because I was lacking in faith and during those six months, no matter how alone and scared I felt, I realized I was never alone. I was guided through a full recovery, having been taught some very strong and powerful lessons along the way. I was chosen to have cancer so that I wouldn't have ruined whatever friendship I had with my former husband, because I was headed down that ugly divorce path, full of disdain and anger. Rick is a wonderful father to our two daughters and he still remains a good friend to me. I was able to forgive my former husband, because hating him took more energy than I could afford to waste.
I can remember sitting in the divorce attorney's office and him telling me I’d need to obtain x amount of dollars worth of life insurance. I remember pulling off my scarf exposing my bald head, telling him I had cancer and that I highly doubt I was a candidate for life insurance! I learned to pick my battles and really do a fearless inventory of what was/is important. Most importantly, I realize how very little control I have over things and that it's up to a power higher than me to make those choices. I may still fumble occasionally on making good choices, but I know I can continue to try harder.
A little more about my cancer: It was stage 2, and was treated aggressively. It was considered “hormone receptor positive” which meant that the estrogen in my body helped the cancer to grow. As a result, I spent five years on a hormone receptive medication that would cause the estrogen to attach to it, as opposed to any other potentially lingering cancer cells. Initially, I was prescribed Tamoxifen, but the side effects were so painful, the doctor switched me to Arimidex.
Don't put your happiness into anyone else's hands. You are responsible for your own happiness, and you are responsible for your own mental and physical health. Don't take that lightly! Seek the medical assistance you need. Also, take time for yourself. Like I mentioned, we do a stressful job. We're exhausted, we have family obligations, I get it, but you have an obligation to yourself and that is to keep YOU healthy. You are no good to anyone unless you are healthy - mentally and physically.
These photos are beautiful momentos of love, courage and strength. Items my daughters made me as both hobbies and class projects, gifts and bracelets my friends made for me, items of significance to me. It's a constant reminder that others thought of me during my struggle. The two long braids, those are my daughters donation to locks of love. It humbles me to think that my struggle, was also my family and friends struggle.
Leslie's daughter, Danielle
There was a close group from the sheriff’s office that would always go camping around Columbus Day. We rarely missed going on these camping trips. This one particular year, my mom arrived a couple days after us, since she had to stay home to go to an appointment. The first thing she said was “Hey, I have to tell you guys something”. My sister and I decided whatever it was should be said at this little beachy cove we had found, and were overly excited to show our mom. It was a very picturesque scene; the sunset was reflecting across the lake, the trees taking on the colors of dusk, it was the perfect crisp autumn night. As I sat on a log taking in that beautiful scene with my family, I didn’t want the moment to end. I didn’t know though, that in just a minute, I would be wishing to be anywhere else.
My mom told us her doctors found a lump and that it was breast cancer. Honestly, that’s all I remember, I heard the words breast cancer and nothing else. I don’t remember if at that point she knew it was stage two already, or if a treatment plan was already decided on. I remember thinking “How am I supposed to get through high school without my mom”. I was 14 and barely three months into my freshman year, and I could not imagine surviving those years without my mom’s guidance.
The next few months were tough, but it was made easier with the outpouring of love we received. We had family friends that would pick me up from practices and games, would let my sister and I sleep over and get us to school, and they made sure we always had food in our fridge. But what I’m most thankful for is that they were there for my mom through that whole journey. They would bring her to chemo treatments, they went wig shopping, and most of all, they helped her keep that wonderfully beautiful sense of humor she has through everything. With mom’s compromised immune system during that time, if we got any kind of symptoms of an illness we had to stay somewhere else besides home. She also couldn’t go to any of my basketball games, obviously. High school gyms are not the correct place for people with compromised immune systems to hang out.
But my mom is something else, you already know this if you know her. I remember warmups just ending, finally getting a chance to take a look in the stands to find where my sister and friends were sitting. What, or should I say who, do I find in the stands? My sweet little mama in this bright electric pink wig! I had to take a second look, I couldn’t believe she was there sitting in the stands, in that hot pink wig. After the game, I ran over to her and said, “What are you doing here? You shouldn’t be here. What if you catch something, you should go home.” That story, in a way represents that entire journey for us. Mom, trying to keep things light, acting like she wasn’t tired of the fight and that everything was fine; then Nicole and I still worrying, knowing the truth and trying to do what we, as young teenagers, could do to help her, which didn’t feel like much.
When October rolls around each year I always make a post for Breast Cancer Awareness, even after 12 years. Awareness is such an important part of detecting cancer. I’m thankful that the cancer was found early enough that my mom had an actual chance in the fight against it, not so many people are as lucky. Be aware of your body and any changes with it, both women and men alike.
Leslie's daughter, Nicole
Our dad had taken my sister and I on a fall camping trip that October. Our parents had just told us they were separating around that time, so I remember when mom drove a few hours to join us on the camping trip, I thought something really bad was happening. They took us on a walk down to the lake we were camping by, that chilly fall evening. They sat us down and told us they had something to tell us. I thought, “What more could be happening?” Mom told us she had breast cancer, but they caught it early and everything should be alright. That was scary. She was so young, we were too young - I was only 16.
It was October, which also happens to be Breast Cancer Awareness Month. At some point in the camping trip, we ran to the store and they had all kinds of breast cancer awareness stuff. We bought everything we could to decorate our campsite as pink and supportive as we could! It’s actually one of the happiest memories I have from that time in our lives. Lots of family friends stepped up and helped mom get to appointments and would make sure my sister and I had dinner as time went on. And I am now grateful for those people because there were days when mom would have little energy.
Looking back on it now, being older and understanding what was taking place, mom was depressed. She had a lot going on, more than we could ever understand at that age. We watched mom go through treatments, which made her sick and lose her hair. She was a good sport and we loved finding cute hats for her to wear. Honestly I wish she would have gotten it later in life so that my sister and I could have been more of a help to her. I’m grateful for all that she’s gone through. It has made my mom such a strong woman and a great teacher for my sister and I.
I never really realized how important it is to know your family’s cancer history until I got into my late twenties. I go to a great gynecologist who is sincerely concerned about my family’s cancer history. My mom was only 43 when she was diagnosed with breast cancer and because of that my doctor sent me to a high risk breast cancer center. It’s pretty fascinating the treatments and tests they have today that they didn’t have 12 years ago when she was diagnosed. The center worked together with my mom and I to do genetic testing and see if any of the genes had been passed to me or my sister. Luckily, we don’t carry the gene, but that doesn’t stop the gynecologist from keeping a closer eye on me because early detection is so important.
I am so grateful and so proud that my mom is a breast cancer survivor. She is so strong and so wise because of what she has been through. To every lady, please go visit your gynecologist yearly, and find one you enjoy visiting, one that cares for you! You deserve it!