Receiving a breast cancer diagnosis can turn your world upside down. It is normal to feel fear of the unknown and of not knowing what the future holds.
Many of the guests on the Real Pink podcast have shared that staying in the present, focusing only on what you can control and believing that you can get through tough times with resilience and positivity is so important.
Leecy is a 46-year-old mother of five children ages 8-23. She and her husband of 25 years, Gary live just outside of Lynchburg, Virginia. Leecy was diagnosed with stage 3, triple-negative breast cancer in 2013. Just six months after completing a double mastectomy, chemotherapy, and radiation, her cancer metastasized. She was diagnosed with Stage 4 breast cancer in March 2014 after cancer was discovered in her brain and later in her chest and lungs. Since then, she has taken over 100 chemotherapy treatments and has been hospitalized for over 100 days from the complications of her terminal diagnosis. In June 2015, regular scans revealed that she was NEaD (no evidence of active disease). Leecy is a strong advocate for women with all stages of breast cancer and will speak about overcoming adversity.
Support for the Real Pink podcast comes from Lilly Oncology.
People living with metastatic breast cancer (or MBC) deserve more. Lilly Oncology aims to bring more awareness of MBC through more education or research and more dedicated solutions to support the women and men living with MBC and the communities that surround them. Learn more at the “More for MBC” Facebook page.
New Speaker (00:29):
From Susan G Komen, this is real pink, a podcast exploring real stories, struggles, and triumphs related to breast cancer. We’re taking the conversation from the doctor’s office to your living room. Receiving a breast cancer diagnosis can turn your world upside down. It’s normal to feel fear of the unknown and of not knowing what the future holds. However, many of the guests that I have interviewed on this podcast have shared that staying in the present, focusing only on what you can control and believing that you can get through tough times with resilience and positivity is so important here today to tell us her incredible story and how she overcame adversity throughout her breast cancer journey is Leecy Fink. Welcome to the show.
Oh, I’m so glad to be here.
So glad to have you I’m looking forward to hearing your story and I know that there’s a lot to it, so let’s just dive right in. Tell us a little bit about yourself and about your breast cancer.
I’m a wife of 25 years. We have five amazing kids. They range in age now from eight to 23, the oldest just got married. So we’re starting to get one or more out of the house pretty soon here. And when I was pregnant, actually with my youngest, she was a month old, I was breastfeeding and I found a lump. I immediately went to the doctor. In fact, I went the very next day and had it looked at, and that led to mammograms and ultrasounds. Unfortunately, they did not believe that it was breast cancer and did not biopsy it at first because I was breastfeeding. They believed it was related to breastfeeding. So after more ultrasounds and more mammograms over the next 14 months. Finally it was biopsied when my daughter was 14, 15 months old. And, it was determined at that point that I had stage three triple-negative breast cancer.
And my tumor was very large because it had been growing for a long time. And what we know about triple-negative breast cancer is that it grows really fast. In fact, my breast tumor was one of the largest that a lot of people in my area had ever seen. It was the volume of a softball and the length of an iPhone. It was huge. And at the time of diagnosis, it was actually visible through my shirt. And I think I had gotten so used to it and I had been breastfeeding and was so distracted with having at that point two kids in diapers, and I was busy with my career and busy with my family. And the last thing I was thinking about was that I had breast cancer because obviously I’d been convinced over the last 14 months that it wasn’t breast cancer.
And so when I finally did go in, however, I wasn’t surprised that it was breast cancer because I have some medical knowledge because I worked in medical sales for a long time. And I did a lot with women’s health. And so I was pretty familiar with what breast cancer could look like. And so the day of my initial biopsy, I was sure that it was breast cancer before I was even told when the radiologist came out and talked to my husband. She described it as an unusual presence because it was such a large tumor and it didn’t look like a lot of tumors that they were familiar with seeing. And immediately put me into chemotherapy. My tumor was too large to initially take out with surgery. So I started six months of chemotherapy. At that point. I assumed that I would take chemotherapy on Monday and be back to work on Thursday.
I didn’t have any real idea about the way that chemotherapy would affect me. And also I knew I was a tough person. I’m probably the toughest person that most of my friends know, I’m the toughest person. My husband knows, and I know I’m tough myself. And I just assumed that I would, I would quickly recover from each treatment and that I would just keep living life as I had before I was diagnosed. I didn’t think that I would need help with the kids. I didn’t think I need help with meals. And all of that was the exact opposite of the reality that I faced immediately. After my first treatment, I took chemotherapy on Monday and I was sick for that. The next 20 days before I took my next treatment on the 21st day, it was horrific and most people will describe the initial breast cancer treatment is pretty awful and my body doesn’t respond well to chemo.
From a side effect standpoint. I have a really hard time with pregnancies and a lot of time, they, a lot of times doctors will tell you if you’re sick a lot during pregnancy, then you’re also probably going to be sick a lot during chemotherapy. And that was definitely me. I took chemotherapy for almost six months. And the great thing about that chemotherapy is that it worked my tumor shrunk. It was barely visible by the time I had surgery, the following June, I had a double mastectomy. And following that I took 33 radiation treatments, just like a lot of people do. I followed that up with removing the ovaries and fallopian tubes because I was discovered during that process that I actually carry the BRCA one gene. My mom actually at that point had faced ovarian cancer and beat it or at that point had beat it.
And so I knew what the possibility of ovarian cancer was for me too. So I had my ovaries and tubes removed during rainy radiation therapy during those months, and then had my last reconstruction surgery for that year in December following my, my last reconstruction surgery, my mom’s cancer came back and she actually passed away from metastatic ovarian cancer, less than a year after I was diagnosed with breast cancer, that was December. And she passed away the first part of January in March. I celebrated my 40th birthday and my cancer survivorship with a lot of friends in Dallas, Texas. I was on a business trip that owned a bridal shop. So I was on a buying trip to the Dallas market. And I was looking at wedding gowns and excited to be back to work and back to doing what I loved.
And I walked into a showroom. And the last thing I remember was looking at a very sparkly wedding gown. I, I woke up sometime later after having a massive seizure, I was taken by ambulance to the hospital. And within an hour I had had a CT scan and they had discovered a brain tumor. The lime sized brain tumor was on my front lobe. And because it was large and significant impressing on lots of things that were really important to function. I needed to really went on heavy medicine to stop the seizures. I was in Dallas alone, except for some friends that I had met there. So my husband flew to Dallas. The next day we came home on Tuesday and on Wednesday, I met with a neurosurgeon here in my town where I live in Virginia. And by Friday I was having my first craniotomy.
So what a lot of people don’t understand is that that this was not a new cancer. It was metastatic breast cancer. It was stage four breast cancer that had come from the initial tumor in my breast. What I’ve learned is that the cells actually probably escaped long before I ever started chemotherapy or had a double mastectomy or radiation. Those cells were just hanging out in my brain waiting to rear their ugly head. So my craniotomy was successful, but there’s a lot of tissue that was affected by the cancers. So after the craniotomy, I took stereotactic radiation therapy on my brain, which is an intense radiation. That’s targeted directly at the tumor bed in my brain. And then my family took a trip. We had decided to buy an old RV because I’d always wanted to take our family out West. We took that trip because I honestly thought that it was probably my last summer with my children.
My prognosis was not good. I really thought, and based on what my doctors had said, I probably had about three to six months to live at that point, even though they had gotten a lot of the brain tumor, my cancer was clearly very aggressive and we weren’t sure that that one surgery was going to stop things during those two weeks. I spent a lot of time with my children, really focused on trying to create memories for them because I wasn’t so sure that I would be able to be around much longer at that point, looking back all of my initial chemotherapy treatments and all the ones I took after that were always planned around my family time. I can remember taking chemotherapy on a Friday instead of the following Monday. So I might feel better by like day 20, because I wanted to be with my daughter to order her class ring.
I always tried to make sure that I was with my family during those key moments, even if I was only present and I wasn’t emotionally, emotionally invested, you know, I was exhausted and tired, but I wanted to be with my family at those key times in their lives. So I wanted to make sure I made it to kindergarten graduation or whatever was happening. I wanted to make sure that I actually could show up for it, even if I was, you know, not all day or I want it to be present that summer. I started chemotherapy just the Monday after we came back from our little two week Midwest trip, I took the kids and showed them where I went to college. We tried to do some things that I wanted to make sure that my kids saw and that they saw them with me.
When I came back, I started chemotherapy that following Monday, and it was an intense chemotherapy. I took chemotherapy at that point, 3 weeks a month. If I wasn’t in a chemo chair, I was in a hospital bed. I was sick all the time. I was constantly battling infections. At that point, my reconstruction began to fail because I was had so much infection inside of me that my reconstruction didn’t last. I had to have surgery to try to fix that before I could take more chemo because my incisions were not holding together anymore. I faced another brain surgery because it looked like my brain tumor was starting to grow again. That year. My cancer also started to grow. It moved to my lungs in November of that year. Just what seven months after I had been diagnosed with my brain tumor, the radiation described my lung, CT, too many tumors to count.
I had a large tumor that was pressing against my Orta, so it was making it difficult to breathe. And it was just really hard just to function much less, try to do life like I’d done before. As I said, I was in the hospital a lot and my kids got really used to me not being able to do the things I used to do, but you’re surrounded by this incredible community of people where we live, who stepped up in ways that I could never have imagined people took my kids school, shopping anonymous, people put money on my kids’ lunch accounts. My staff took care of my business. Like I was running it myself. My husband’s job. He’s a police officer. They came and mowed our grass. They did repairs on our home. They did whatever they could to allow us to just be together as a family whenever I was able to be.
And that community of people they’re still with us now. I mean, it’s, it’s been incredible to be able to continue in my own life, to be able to give back to some of those people. To that November, my scans looked worse than I thought then, then they had the whole time things, my lymph nodes throughout my midsection, my intestines, my everywhere. We’re lighting up on scans and I’m suspicious of more cancer. And we took another one of those good, bad trips that December, because that, again, I thought things were wrapping up pretty soon for me. And so we took the kids on a cruise. We spent lots of time together that Christmas we stayed away from, from everyone and just spent time the seven of us, as I said, I have five children. So at that point I had two that had not started school yet.
I had a middle schooler and two high schoolers that I was facing, leaving behind. When we got back from that cruise, I continued taking chemotherapy and the following March I was taking, having scans, I think every three months at that point, the first scan that I had taken that actually showed some improvement. My lung tumors looked a little better. My brain was still suspicious, but it, there wasn’t anything growing at that point in my brain. And for the first time it looked like my chemotherapy was actually working. They had changed my chemotherapy slightly in December. We had changed from one of the two medicines I was taking to a different combination. And so the new combination seems to be working. So March led to June and I continued taking chemotherapy again every three weeks in the hospital. I think during that year, I was in the hospital, 58 days.
So I was in the hospital a lot. And when I would take chemo, the next five days, I would go in for injections. I would go in for potassium and magnesium and iron and fluids and nausea meds. And I, I spent pretty much five days a week in a, in a chair at the chemo office if I wasn’t in the hospital, but all of that work and all of that medication, all of that investment by my amazing oncologist, as well as I always say a whole lot of Jesus I’m here. And, in June of that year, actually got the incredible news that my scans showed that I was no evidence of active disease. So what that means to a stage four person is that I had nothing growing, nothing new, nothing old, everything was completely stable and better than stable. There was no evidence of anything growing.
So even though we never really talk about remission when you’re stage four, if, if you want to describe it as remission, I think that’s how a lot of people describe it. I describe it again. And most of us do as no evidence of active disease because we know that stage four illnesses is a terminal illness. And so that was June of 2015. I continued on chemotherapy until December and in December, they decided to drop one of the chemotherapies I was on. And so I remained on the additional chemo that we had added the December before I stayed on that chemotherapy until the following April and in April, I got very sick. And what that sickness did is that I couldn’t breathe. My lungs looked terrible on the scans again, and we were pretty sure that my cancer had returned and things looked very dire.
I was hospitalized. And after a bronchoscopy, the pulmonologist who’s a friend of mine came in and said, I think it’s something besides cancer. And I said, well, what do you think it is? He said, I think it’s a reaction to your chemotherapy. And so after more tests it was discovered that I had a toxicity that was related to my chemotherapy and my lungs I’d been on that same treatment for, at that point 19 months. And I think it’s one, that’s probably only indicated for six or eight treatments total, but of course we know that in treatment for metastatic disease, you take things a lot longer than indicated. It was determined that obviously I couldn’t take that treatment anymore. And my assumption was that in two to three weeks, my cancer would start growing again. And that I would be back on some sort of chemotherapy because for triple negative breast cancer chemotherapy is our only option. There’s no, there’s no hormone blocker. There’s no specified targeted therapy for triple negative breast cancer. So chemotherapy was my only option. Three weeks later, turned into six weeks later. And this is, you know, scan after scan turned into three months and then six months, then nine months. And here I am in July of 2020. And I’ve actually not been on chemotherapy since April of 2016 for metastatic breast cancer.
Wow. That is, I mean, you are tough. You said you’re tough. And I think you have just definitively proven. You’re tough. And then, and then also, you know, I know from my notes that two years ago, you and your family survived a tornado that destroyed your entire house, right? So tell, talk a little bit about how you handled that stress along with all of the other stress and just, it kept coming.
It did keep coming. I mentioned that I lost my mom. We also lost both my husband’s parents during that year. So we lost three out of our four parents while I was initially battling breast cancer and then metastatic breast cancer. But I will tell anyone the hardest thing that I have ever faced was a tornado. And in April of 2017, my family was home. It was my husband’s birthday. And we had just celebrated his birthday. And my kids had gone up to their rooms and we, they were watching TV and we were going to have some grownup time in the living room. And it was kind of an ominous day. The weather was not good. I live in an area of Virginia that does not face tornadoes. I think I told you, I live five miles from the Blue Ridge Parkway. I grew up in the mountains of Virginia.
This is not something I’ve ever experienced or known about. But there was a storm system coming up from the Gulf coast that they had warned us was possible, really bad thunderstorms. And I had been watching kind of the weather all day. I kind of enjoy that kind of thing. And so at that point, when we decided to wind down and watch some TV, I shut my laptop and we turned on the TV and we weren’t watching the news. We were watching a movie and my husband got a text on his phone and it was from a police officer that he works with on the other side of town. And he said, they said on the news that tornado was headed to Elan. Elan is the small community of maybe a thousand people that I live in. It’s not even a, it doesn’t even have a zip code, but on the news, it was guests that this tornado had crossed the river and was headed towards us.
We immediately yell for our family to run to the basement. Three of our five children were home at the time. And as fast as we were running down the steps, the power was going out and our windows were breaking. We got to a place in our basement where there’s a couch, which sometimes we would wait out thunderstorms there. If, you know, if they said, you know, go to your basement or whatever, like you’ve heard on the news. So I took the children and went to the couch, but before I could even sit down, my husband yelled, you guys need to get over here. He had seen out the window how dark it was. And that something was just, this was not okay. And again, our windows upstairs, we could hear him braking. And so as we turned the corner to go into our laundry area and underneath our stairs where we sort our suitcases, we backed underneath those stairs.
And actually I’m sending very close to where we were at that point in the basement at that point, the plumbing above us burst and the water began to pour in on our heads. And things were very loud and very scary. But as I will tell anyone, the possibility of losing your children is a million times harder than the possibility of losing your own life. And I had faced my own mortality and had come to terms with that more than once. And my husband and I had talked about the possibility of me passing away with my children being so young and what that would mean to them, but the possibility of my husband and I losing one of my kids that night was a whole nother feeling. When we came out, when the storm stopped, we rounded the corner, back to the finished side of our basement and looked upstairs and we could see the sun shining down our steps.
At that point are our neighbors came to our back windows of our basement and say, guys, can’t come out here. It’s too dangerous. And we, I had already been getting electrocuted from the wires and in the water. And I said, you’ve got to get us out of here. It’s not safe. And so we lifted our children up the basement steps and an out to our neighbors and on them, a husband lifted me up because our basement stairs were covered in debris, probably about four feet deep. And when I looked out there literally was nothing left in my home on its foundation, the only thing left was the flooring. Our two story home that we had raised our kids and was gone as a, as what’s much of our neighborhood. I think we probably lost seven homes in my neighborhood and another, probably a hundred homes in our community had, you know, major damage.
It was significant. It took a long time to recover from it, but there was no question ever that we would recover. I said to my children, I kept saying to them that night were the Finks and the things get through stuff. We’re, we’re tougher. I’m shaking as I say this, because it’s just so ingrained in my mind and into my children’s minds, that we get through things that were tough and we’re resilient, and we can get through anything hard, as hard as the tornado was. And as difficult as metastatic breast cancer has been for my family, there was never a question that we weren’t going to come out on the other side. And even if coming out on the other side meant losing me, I know that my husband and my children would somehow survive that because we’ve taught them that you just, you tough through things that life is going to give you really hard stuff that there’s going to be unusual presences in their life.
You know, things that they didn’t ask for and things that you never expected, but things that you absolutely, you know, you buckled down and you get through them. And my daughter has just gotten through living in New York city newly married and facing, you know, everything that they faced in the city. And I saw her have that same resilience that I, that she saw me have. And, and I just, it was just beautiful to see one of my children face something so hard and be able to come out on the other side of it. It’s just, it’s an incredible feeling as a parent.
I love that. Yeah. I love your approach. I love that, that idea of pushing through things and overcoming adversity and staying positive. Yeah. Talk for just a moment about ways that you focus on living and staying in the present, because I know that it’s probably easy for your mind to run away to the future. So, so talk a little bit about that.
So I, someone told me, or maybe I came up with it, I don’t know, but somebody told me one time. I think that you don’t go there until you go there. Like I say to other people all the time, you know, I know what that feeling is when you get that cancer drag, gnosis the first thing you want to do is start thinking about what your funeral looks like. And you know, Oh my gosh, who’s going to take, who’s going to be at my kid’s graduation if I’m not there, but until you go there, you can’t let your mind go there. And I’m not saying it’s easy, but I reel it back in all the time. And I try to help others reel it back in. You know, I also have a theory that tomorrow has to be a little bit better than today above my bed is my favorite Bible verse.
And it’s morning by morning, new mercies. I see. And it, it’s also in a beautiful hymn that I love. It’s greatest that faithfulness. I just, I believe that tomorrow is going to be a little bit better that God is going to give me new mercies. And those new mercies might just be that I’m a little less nauseous tomorrow than I was yesterday. Or maybe it’s that I have a fewer diapers to change, you know, or maybe it’s, you know, I got a little less attitude from a preteen, you know, but that’s numeracy I wasn’t expecting yesterday when I didn’t think I could get through those four months of, you know, an 11-year-old. I do believe that there, that there are new mercies and sometimes they’re really hard to find. Sometimes it was really, really, really hard to find. Not even sometimes a lot of times it was really hard to find something better about today than yesterday, but, but there are better things. And sometimes it’s an, a gift from someone else. And sometimes it’s something I have to come up with on my own. And I think seeking those out and trying to find them is really important.
Yeah. That’s great. My last question, I know that you’re a strong advocate for women in all stages of breast cancer. Do you have any final thoughts that you’d like to share with our listeners that are navigating their own breast cancer journey?
I think community is key. I think having people in your world facing what you’re facing is so important or have faced it or who are going to face it. I am Oh, such an advocate for making sure that we grab the hand of the next person and pull them through. And no matter how busy I am, I’m never too busy to pick up the phone and call someone who was newly diagnosed with breast cancer. I think sometimes my story is a little scary to someone with an early stage, but at the same time being able to talk about a doctor’s appointments or that feeling, you know, being able to talk about the real feelings that you’re facing and the ones you can’t tell your husband are the ones that you’re afraid that someone else is gonna worry, that you know, would really worry your teenagers.
If they knew what you were really thinking. There are people out there who have thought that and who are in that place. And so being able to help the next person along. I also having said that, and advocacy is so important. I have had the honor of being part of Komen national advocacy day in DC. I just went to an advocacy day on the state level a few months ago before COVID. And I just think it’s so important if we can do some things, to use our stories, to help someone else, whether we know them or not. It’s just so important.
It’s been really amazing. Thank you for sharing your story. Thank you for your strength and for overcoming and for just being willing to pour into our listeners. So thank you for your time.
Thank you. Thank you.
About This Episode
Intro and outro music is City Sunshine by Kevin MacLeod. Ad music is Trusted Advertising by David Renda licensed from Fesliyan Studios Inc.