Five breast cancer patients with one thing in common: a fighting spirit.
Photos: Nicole Hamel
With October being Breast Cancer Awareness Month, we’ll undoubtedly be bombarded with statistics, studies, and stories about the latest treatment methods.
Sometimes, the human element becomes lost.
It’s important to put a face and a name to a disease that will transform the lives of 281,550 women who are newly diagnosed this year, according to the American Cancer Society.
Style is sharing the stories of five breast cancer patients. Although they face similar challenges, not two cancer journeys are the same. Learn how these brave women discovered the ‘can’ in cancer and marvel at their candid accounts of perseverance and strength during a time of great adversity.
Leigh Neely has an important message for all women.
Don’t forget to schedule an annual mammogram.
Leigh, a 69-year-old resident of Leesburg, speaks from experience. During a mammography screening in March 2018, doctors noticed a small, abnormal spot and scheduled her to have a follow-up mammogram six months later. The spot had grown. After undergoing a needle biopsy, Leigh learned that she had Stage 1 invasive ductal carcinoma.
Leigh will never forget the encouraging words she received from her surgeon prior to undergoing a lumpectomy, a procedure to remove cancer and abnormal tissue from her left breast.
“He told me, ‘You’re one lucky lady.’ He said that because my cancer was so small, they were able to remove most of it during the needle biopsy.”
To this day, Leigh credits mammography not only for early detection but also from enduring a long, painful recovery. She never underwent chemotherapy, saving her from the embarrassment of losing hair, and only endured one week of radiation. Surgery left her with a tiny scar on the underside of her arm.
“I really think my recovery was easy,” she says. “I did not experience a lot of suffering,
and I didn’t even take all of my pain pills. I credit that to faithfully having mammograms every year since I turned 35. Mammograms are painless, only slightly uncomfortable, and they can definitely save your life.”
For Leigh, the worst part of battling cancer was the horrible timing. Six months prior to being diagnosed with breast cancer, she tragically lost her husband, Richard, in an automobile accident.
“It was staggering when I got my diagnosis, and I began wondering what else is going to happen to me,” she says. “Richard’s death was so sudden and horrible that I was in shock for two months. I was still deep in the throes of grief when I was diagnosed with cancer.”
She was more concerned how the news would affect her three children—Stephanie, Dale, and Scott.
“They had just lost their father, and now they had to face the fact that their mother had cancer,” Leigh says. “I felt terrible for them.”
Fortunately, her family provided much-needed support. Leigh stayed with Dale’s family in Tallahassee while receiving treatment at Capitol Regional Cancer Center. During recovery, Stephanie came from Atlanta to spend three weeks with Leigh, and Scott came from London to visit for one week. Leigh also received a visit from her best friend, Jan Powell, who resides in Tennessee.
“I cannot stress enough how important a strong support system and a positive attitude are,” she says. “They drove me to my appointments and took great care of me. We became much closer as a family.”
Jamie Losito was only 33 when she received a breast cancer diagnosis on May 24, 2019. That was scary enough.
However, the most shocking news came five days later.
Jamie learned she was in the early stages of pregnancy. The news left her dumbfounded. Just several years earlier, two gynecologists and two fertility doctors informed her she could not become naturally pregnant. In fact, she underwent three years of fertility treatments to have her first son, Landon.
“The first oncologist I visited said I didn’t have time to wait to beat cancer and I can’t beat cancer while being pregnant,” Jamie says. “That made the hair on my neck stand up. I was more distraught about giving up my pregnancy than having cancer.”
Reluctant to terminate her pregnancy, Jamie received a second opinion at Moffitt Cancer Center in Tampa. She felt a sense of peace when oncologists told her breast cancer does not affect a baby’s development in the womb and chemotherapy is safe because it does not cross the placenta, which acts as a wall protecting the baby.
“The physicians there have treated pregnant breast cancer patients in the past, so I felt very comfortable making the decision to keep my baby and moving forward with treatment,” Jamie says.
During her pregnancy, she underwent a mastectomy of her right breast and 12 rounds of chemotherapy. Through it all, she bravely fulfilled her roles as a wife, mother, and businessowner. Jamie, a certified financial planner and owner of a wealth management company, Canopy 360, mustered enough strength to continue working full-time.
“I knew I had to keep moving to keep my baby healthy, but I needed to continue working for my clients and my business partner since there were only two of us who worked there at that time,” she says. “Each of those kept pushing the other ones along.”
Her perseverance and determination allowed her to experience one of life’s most precious moments. In January 2020, Jamie gave birth to a beautiful and healthy girl, Madison Grace. The girl has developed a big personality, sporting an adorable smile for everyone she meets.
For Jamie, who today is cancer-free, holding Madison in her arms is a constant reminder of how adversity can be conquered through hope, courage, and strength.
“My battle with breast cancer really puts things in perspective,” she says. “Sometimes I look back and I’m not sure how it all happened and how I was able to accomplish everything I did. Every day is about the width instead of the length. Life is about slowing down and feeling the breeze on your face.”
As a lifestyle medicine expert and owner of Total Nutrition and Therapeutics, Lori Esarey gives her patients hope. She has dedicated her career, her passion, and her life to helping patients lose weight and overcome disease.
But in September 2019, the role was flipped. Lori became the patient after being diagnosed with Stage 1 breast cancer.
The diagnosis was shocking for Lori, who earned a master’s degree in nutritional medicine and metabolic medicine from the University of South Florida. She has spent her adult life eating a diet rich in whole foods and nutritionally dense foods, and her daily runs provide time for reflection and to strengthen her relationship with Christ.
Unfortunately, cancer does not discriminate. Not even against health enthusiasts like Lori.
Her diagnosis brought forth the usual emotions—denial, anger, and frustration.
“It made me question everything,” Lori says. “I wondered what I had done wrong, and I was mad at myself. I had lived a very clean lifestyle, and I began wondering if I was living a lie. I questioned whether the healthy platform to which I lived my life was completely wrong.”
Lori was spared from undergoing chemotherapy because her cancer had not spread to her lymph nodes. Still, she was confronted with a difficult choice: have a lumpectomy, a targeted surgery that removes only the tumor, or have a double mastectomy to remove both breasts. Lori opted to have a double mastectomy in fear that cancer might develop in her left breast.
“If I would’ve had the lump removed, then I would undergo routine mammograms, ultrasound, and other diagnostic tests. My internal anxiety would have been high, and I didn’t want to endure that on a regular basis.”
For Lori, spending countless hours researching breast cancer empowered her to make that decision. She strongly urges patients to make their own treatment choices and advises family members and friends to refrain from giving unwanted and potentially bad advice.
“Ultimately, nobody should give advice unless they have experienced breast cancer,” Lori says. “People would always tell me, ‘If this were me, this is what I’d do.’ That’s like fingernails down a chalkboard to me. Family members should pray, be supportive, provide a listening ear, and be by their side. But don’t provide treatment advice on something you know nothing about.”
Lori’s surgery was successful. In fact, six weeks after undergoing the procedure, she was a guest speaker at the 2019 American Academy of Anti-Aging Medicine’s 27th Annual World Congress in Las Vegas. She eventually realized her healthy lifestyle paid big dividends, after all.
“I’m very grateful for my lifestyle because I don’t know how long the cancer was there,” she says. “My recovery was fantastic as a result of the groundwork of years of good nutrition that gave me my bounce back.”
Most importantly, she has developed a great deal of empathy for breast cancer patients.
“Diversity either grows you or destroys you,” she says. “My walk with cancer opened up an opportunity for me to minister to women who come to my clinic with breast cancer.”
Receiving a cancer diagnosis causes many complex emotions to surface. But for breast cancer patients like Joy Breeze who were diagnosed during the coronavirus pandemic, those emotions are exacerbated.
Joy, a 44-year-old resident of Tavares, learned that she had Stage 2 breast cancer in December 2020.
Because of visitor restrictions, no family member or friend could accompany her to doctor’s appointments and take notes. Moreover, her compromised immune system forced her to remain inside her home from January to July.
Loneliness and social isolation took a toll.
“It was hard not having a support team at my doctor’s appointments,” she says. “And being confined to my home became so lonely. The only time I really went out was when I was visiting a doctor. I would pass the time by binge watching shows on Netflix.”
The side effects of chemotherapy made those long days seem endless. Joy experienced temporary vision loss and constant nausea. She also had to endure the stress of undergoing a mastectomy of her right breast in June.
“The surgery was difficult,” she says. “You have tubes coming out of your body, and doctors take some tubes out after two weeks and other tubes out after three weeks.
I didn’t like having tubes in my body for so long.”
Despite the hardships, Joy continues battling cancer with laser-light focus. She has no choice. Her sons, Alex, 17, and Lenex, 13, had already suffered tragedy when their father died of a heart attack 13 years ago.
Joy wasn’t about to let them lose another parent.
“I kept thinking that if something happened to me my boys would be without their mom and dad. That was a driving force for me to beat cancer.”
Her young boys happily stepped up to the challenging role of caregiver. Alex ran errands while Lenex completed household chores.
“I’m proud of my boys because they gave up a lot,” Joy says. “They couldn’t have friends over, and I couldn’t attend their sporting events. That was so hard for me.”
As of this writing, Joy’s tumor has shrunk from 5 centimeters to .2 centimeters. She has one more treatment of targeted radiation, and following that, she’ll undergo periodic imaging tests to make sure the cancer has not returned.
For Joy, battling breast cancer came with challenges but also led to moments of self-discovery.
“I learned that I could do a lot more than I thought I ever could, and I also realized I’m a lot stronger than I ever thought,” Joy says.
Soon, Joy hopes to volunteer for a cancer-based organization and return the goodwill she received.
“Cancer organizations sent me things like robes, chap stick, and a bracelet,” Joy says. “When I received a surprise package it would make my day. I would like to pay those kind deeds forward and do my part in helping other breast cancer patients.”
Most cancer survivors remember their day of diagnosis as easily as their birthday.
For Grand Island resident Lynn Haynes, the dates are identical.
In January 2016, Lynn received an unpleasant surprise on her 45th birthday when she was diagnosed with an aggressive form of breast cancer, HER2-positive. This cancer occurs when breast cancer cells have a protein receptor called human epidermal growth factor receptor 2, which promotes the growth of cancerous cells.
What was supposed to be a day of celebration turned into a day of uncertainty and fear. Lynn canceled plans to go out with her husband, Michael, and several friends.
“I didn’t feel like being with anyone; I needed to digest it all,” Lynn recalls. “It’s very hard receiving news like that and not knowing the magnitude of my condition. I didn’t know how far it had spread or what stage I was in.”
The answers to those questions came days later. Lynn’s cancer had advanced to stage 3 and metastasized to a lymph node under her arm. That grim news did not spark a defeatist attitude. Instead, it produced a warrior’s spirit.
“I stayed positive and told myself, ‘I am going to battle this,’” she says. “There was no other option.”
That positive mindset helped Lynn persevere through a total of 16 chemotherapy treatments, as well as radiation and surgery. The chemotherapy robbed her of her beautiful hair, and the radiation left scarring on her lung.
However, neither could touch her indomitable spirit. Lynn coped with hair loss by purchasing two wigs that closely matched her hair color and length. And every morning, she showered, dressed herself, and went to work as a real estate agent.
“I wanted to continue living as normally as possible,” Lynn says. “I didn’t want to be someone who exists merely to battle cancer. If you sit there and think about cancer all the time, it’s easy to fall into depression. Working allowed me to remain strong.”
By June 2016, imaging tests no longer detected cancer in her body. As of this writing, Lynn has not experienced a recurrence.
Reflecting back, Lynn discovered a silver lining during her grueling battle with cancer.
“Going through cancer taught me what is most important in life, and that’s friends and family,” she says. “Before my diagnosis, I was a work-a-holic and realized I needed to slow down and take time to enjoy life.”
Today, Lynn spends valuable time with Michael and her daughter., Nicole. They create wonderful memories through nature walks, swimming, kayaking, and traveling.
For Lynn, each birthday is no longer a celebration of being one year older. It’s a milestone to celebrate being a survivor.