In 2020, life as we knew it came to an abrupt halt.
But for Leslie, in the middle of all that – she was diagnosed with cancer.
It was a recipe for loneliness. And as Leslie navigated through her breast cancer journey, she couldn’t help but feel it.
“It’s hard to talk about being lonely, because you don’t want to discredit everybody that’s around you, helping and reaching out,” said Leslie. “But no matter how much support you have around you, in the end, no one else is truly fighting except you. That weight is all on your shoulders.”
But along her path, she came across a few things that somehow made that loneliness a little lighter – if only for a minute.
Things like a card in the mail, a phone call from a friend, or the smiling faces at the front desk when she walked in for proton therapy treatment.
They were, as Leslie calls them, “the little things.”
“I saved every single card I was given. The phone calls, the texts. In a brief moment, it made you smile and it made you feel like you’ve got more people around you who care.”
Throughout her entire journey, that’s what stood out to Leslie the most – the little things matter.
And one of those little things inspired Leslie to take on something much bigger. It was a gift she received during chemotherapy – a pouf filled with everyday items like lip balm, lotion, and fuzzy socks. Leslie recalled being overcome with emotion when she got that pouf.
“That someone would go out of their way to put something together for women, but she has no idea who they are and the journey they’re about to embrace. That just made me smile.”
She would later learn the gift came from a program called Poufs for a Purpose. And because that little pouf had such an immense emotional impact on her, Leslie knew she had to pay it forward. So, she set out to organize her own Poufs for a Purpose campaign in hopes of spreading that same positive feeling.
CAUGHT OFF GUARD
As a mother to two young boys, whose love for baseball keeps the family on the go a lot, Leslie decided to leave her career and become a stay-at-home mom. Even under normal circumstances, that’s a life-changing decision that certainly takes some adjustment time. However, just as she felt like she was getting settled into her new lifestyle, the COVID pandemic began, and the world shut down.
Suddenly, schools were closed and the whole family was confined to the house practically 24/7. As we all remember, that was a difficult time for a lot of people, both physically and emotionally. But to add to Leslie’s stress, just a couple months into the pandemic, she noticed something wasn’t quite right.
“I found a lump in the shower, and I immediately called my doctor,” she recalled. But by then, doctors’ offices were trying to play catch up after months of the shutdown. “Everything was delayed. It was two weeks before they could even get me in to have a mammogram.”
Eventually, she got in for the proper testing, including a biopsy, which revealed she did indeed have breast cancer.
“I was completely caught off guard. I don’t have a family history and I’m not even 40 yet, so breast cancer was the furthest thing from my radar.”
ONLY ONE THING TO DO
After being diagnosed, Leslie felt an overwhelming rush of feelings, questions, fear, and more questions. However, after the initial shock wore off, Leslie knew there was only one thing to do.
“I felt like I had tunnel vision. I was like, ‘Ok. I’ve only got one option.’ My one option was to get through this.”
Motivated by her family – by her determination to be there for her husband and sons – she began her fight against breast cancer. Her treatment plan would include a combination of chemotherapy, surgery, and radiation therapy.
The chemo came first. Leslie remembers that being a difficult time from a mental and physical perspective. “I tried to do all the things. I tried to eat well, but once you receive chemo, I had about 10 days where I just felt miserable.”
And there were little things that took their toll, too. Like bedtime with her boys, which was a nightly tradition in their house – usually involving a bedtime song and a good back scratch.
“But sometimes I didn’t have the strength to go into their bedroom to do that,” she remembered. “So, they would come into my bed and lay across my lap, and I’d sit up and do our nighttime routine in my room.”
Driven by her refusal to let cancer take her away from her family, Leslie pushed through the chemo. And, of course, those “little things” helped keep her spirits up – like that Pouf for a Purpose she got during her very first infusion.
Surgery came next. She had some options on how extensive the surgery would be, but she ended up deciding on a complete double mastectomy.
“That was a harder decision than I thought it was going to be. With my age, I just felt the double mastectomy was the most proactive, and that’s what made the most sense. But it was one of the hardest decisions of my life.”
Following surgery, doctors prescribed a few more rounds of chemotherapy, and then it was time for radiation. Her provider scheduled an appointment for traditional x-ray radiation, never even mentioning that she may have other radiation options.
DISCOVERING A BETTER OPTION
Thankfully, her mom came across an article about an alternative to traditional radiation – proton therapy. After doing a little research, she was intrigued by this more advanced form of radiation therapy. Proton therapy precisely targets tumors, avoids unnecessary radiation to healthy tissue, and lowers the risk of side effects.
“It sounded great, especially because my heart is right there,” Leslie said, noting that her cancer was on her left side – the side closest to her heart. “I was already getting heart echocardiograms every three months because of the infusions I was receiving. So, I was already at a potential risk of heart damage, and then radiation on top of that just really scared me.”
She scheduled a consultation at the Nashville proton center developed by Provision, and it didn’t take long for her to cancel that traditional radiation appointment.
“That’s all it took. After that consultation it was like, ‘This is where I’m supposed to be.’”
The proton-experienced doctor explained to Leslie that both traditional radiation and proton therapy would be effective in attacking the cancer cells. However, by avoiding unnecessary radiation to her heart and lungs, she would have a lower risk of complications down the road.
“I wanted to do everything I could because I have a lot of time left here. Years from now, I don’t want to end up having damage where we beat the breast cancer, but then from treatment, I got something else.”
FEELING THE CARE
Throughout her journey, Leslie always appreciated the little things that made her feel cared about. The pouf she received during chemo. Her mom driving in from out-of-town to help with the kids. Her husband finishing up that all-important bedtime routine each night. And when she walked into the proton center for treatment each day, the little things kept working their magic!
“The whole staff – the front desk, my technicians – everybody became my friend,” she said. “When you’re going down a journey like this, seeing the smiles and building the relationships with staff – that made the difference.”
After completing proton therapy treatment, she rang the victory bell to mark the end of that phase in her journey. In total, she went through 17 rounds of chemotherapy, three different surgeries, and 25 proton treatments.
“At this point, I’ve been given the ‘all clear.’ I’m done with treatment. So that’s exciting,” she remarked. “But it’s almost like, ‘Ok. Now what?!’”
She had a year and half full of doctor’s appointments. A year and half of feeling sick, feeling tired, and just trying to keep up her energy. Of trying to balance being a mom with being a cancer patient.
And, all of a sudden, she had her life back.
PAYING IT FORWARD
So, after looking at that little pouf she received during chemotherapy – that little pouf that has never left her side since that day – she decided to pay it forward by starting her own Poufs for a Purpose campaign.
“This little gold pouf goes everywhere with me. It stays in my purse because it’s a reminder that I wasn’t alone,” Leslie explained. “If, for a split second, I can make a woman smile and appreciate that someone else was thinking about them, then it’s worth it for me.”
Remarkably, she actually launched her first campaign while she was still going through her own cancer treatment.
“I thought about waiting, because it’s a lot, but I didn’t want women to wait. If I could help somebody right then and there, that’s what I wanted to do.” And she recalled being glad she didn’t wait, “I think it fed my heart in two ways. It helped distract me from my own journey and gave me something to do.”
In her first year, she distributed 100 Poufs for a Purpose to local hospitals in her community. Each containing those everyday items like hand lotion, lip balm, ink pens, even handmade face masks – “little things” that would hopefully make a big impact on the women receiving them.
A COMMUNITY EFFORT
She raised the stakes in her second year, setting a goal of assembling at least 150 poufs and expanding the Poufs for a Purpose distribution area to include clinics where she was treated.
“The more hospitals, the more clinics, the more locations we can reach, the more women we can touch.”
And since this is a complete “grass roots” campaign, Leslie needs the community’s help to make that happen. She accepts monetary donations from anyone who would like to sponsor a pouf for $30. Alternatively, she welcomes donations of physical items to go inside the poufs. Anyone interested in helping can contact Leslie at firstname.lastname@example.org.
“I’m just the organizer, but truly everybody is a part of it,” she added, still amazed by the significant impact these little Poufs for a Purpose can have. “That’s the biggest thing. You think that what you can do doesn’t matter, but it does. The little stuff matters. And my journey last year proved that.”
If you would like to make a contribution to Poufs for a Purpose, please email Leslie at email@example.com.