Valdosta Daily Times

October 23, 2012

Cancer survivor learns every cloud has a silver lining

Brittany D. McClure
The Valdosta Daily Times

VALDOSTA — For Theresa Leonard, breast cancer will be an everyday battle for the rest of her life.

“I have stage four breast cancer,” said Leonard.

Diagnosed on Sept. 12, 2007, Leonard vividly recalled everyday leading up to the moment that changed her life forever.

“On Labor Day, I got out of the shower and I was drying off and I felt something funny,” said Leonard.

It was a lump under her right breast.

Immediately, Leonard knew something was wrong. Her mother, Shirley Davis, is a 28-year survivor of breast cancer and her grandmother, now deceased, also had breast cancer. So, Leonard was immediately preparing for the worst.

The day after Labor Day, Leonard went to the doctor. At this point, Leonard was still living in North Carolina.

That Friday, she received a mammogram and a sonogram. That following Wednesday, her worst fears were confirmed. It was cancer.

“They made an appointment for me to have the surgeon remove it,” said Leonard.

However, the cancer was worse than initially suspected. It was stage four and her doctor informed the surgeon that there was no time for surgery.

“Do not do the surgery on her,” Leonard recalls the doctor saying. “She won’t have six weeks to heal.”

Leonard needed treatment immediately. She began taking Femara, also known as “oral chemo.”

“It was hell,” said Leonard. “It was like going through menopause all over again.”

Leonard was a wreck. She was fussy, irritable, sick and her hair stopped growing. Despite the horrible side effects, the drug worked.

The mass that was at one time the size of her hand had shrunk.

“When they finally did the surgery in 2009, it was the size of a garden pea,” said Leonard.

However, it took two years for Leonard to get to the point of surgery.

In 2008, Leonard and her significant other, Wade McCain, moved to Valdosta to care for McCain’s mother who was ill.

“We were coming here every three weeks to see her,” said Leonard.

That’s the thing about Leonard. Despite battling stage four cancer, she is always worrying about someone else. Even to the point that she is thankful she is the one with cancer because she couldn’t have bared having it happen to her little sister, Debbie Stallings.

“All I could think was thank God it wasn’t my sister,” said Leonard.

Leonard recalls the day her baby sister came home from the hospital; she was just 5. Her mother brought home twins, Stallings and her brother, Mike Davis. For Leonard, that meant that her mother had one baby to care for because her sister was hers.

“Mama had a baby and I had one,” said Leonard.

In July of 2009, Leonard began receiving treatment at the Pearlman Cancer Center at South Georgia Medical Center. She finally had her surgery to remove the lump.

Though the lumpectomy removed the mass that had sprawled out to Leonard’s lymph nodes like fingers, the cancer had already spread to her right arm between her elbow and shoulder, her liver, her left lung and her L5 vertebrae, which was completely destroyed and had to be surgically replaced.

After surgery, Leonard began radiation. By the time she is done, she will have had a total of 75 treatments.

While Leonard still takes “oral chemo,” she receives traditional chemo through a surgically implanted port every three weeks. Her treatment is a mixture of Herceptin, which is used to keep her in remission, and Zometa, a drug used to strengthen her bones. Leonard will receive chemo treatments until the day she dies.

While the outlook of painful chemo treatments for the rest of her life is unsettling, Leonard manages to find the silver lining in the cloud that looms over her life.

“I wasn’t supposed to live but five weeks,” said Leonard. “I’m on five years, one month and six days and that’s something.”

The doctor tells Leonard that she has a 50/50 chance of surviving a long time.

“He said a lot of it has to do with attitude,” said Leonard. “I figure, I come from tough stuff, so I’m not going to let a little bitty thing like cancer beat me.”

Many people keep Leonard going: Her daughter, Libby Billotto, and her children, whom Leonard refers to as her “angels,” 10-year-old Trent Billotto and 6-year-old Gavin Billotto, her sons Jason McNelly and Phillip Leonard and step-son Erick McCain.

However, her rock is her aunt whom she calls her sister, Joyce Rorie.

“She’s my go-to person when I’m falling apart,” said Leonard.

Leonard falls apart rarely. She’s happy. She doesn’t like having cancer, but she’s thankful for the people that it has brought into her life such as the nurses at the Pearlman Cancer Center.

“This place has become like my family,” said Leonard. “I don’t like cancer, but I enjoy the time I spend here.”

Battling cancer has strengthened Leonard’s faith, her relationships and her outlook on life.

“Cancer cannot take away my spirit,” said Leonard.