Leslie Humphrey has worked with the American Cancer Society for over 12 years. However, this February, she heard the three words that would forever change her perspective on the disease her organization has fought so long to cure: you have cancer.
“We say it all the time in my job; no one wants to hear those words,” Leslie said. She went to her OB-GYN, Ruston Pierce, M.D., and asked, “Are you positive that this is really the ‘C word?’” It was.
It all started in May 2017 when Leslie missed her annual mammogram. Ironically, she missed it because she had just undergone a hysterectomy and was in the hospital.
Fast-forward to January 2018, when Dr. Ruston Pierce recommended that Leslie have her mammogram early, since she missed it in May. Leslie had felt nothing during her routine breast self-exams and had no symptoms. Dr. Pierce still found three tumors in Leslie’s breast.
“I do self exams every month, because I have to practice what I preach, and I never knew they were there,” she said. “I had no symptoms. You may not always feel a lump. I didn’t.”
Leslie had a lumpectomy and went through 44 treatments of radiation. “Going through my radiation was not easy; I was exhausted,” she said. “I always saw people that got to ring the bell on their last day of treatment,” she said. “I never knew that ringing a bell would have so much significance, but it does. It was my own personal victory. I had done it. I was finished, and it was over. I had beat it, and I was grateful because there are so many people that may not get to ring that bell.”
Today Leslie is cancer free and living with a new lease on her life and work. “I’ve always been passionate about my job, but now I get it,” she said. “I used to say, ‘I don’t know what you’re going through, but I’m here for you.’ Now I know what it’s like. I know what it’s like to lay on that table for those six-minute radiology treatments and look at the tulips on the ceiling. I can totally relate to these ladies now.”
For instance, Leslie runs the Relay for Life events in South Arkansas, and this year, she walked the survivor lap at her home relay in Star City. There are also luminary ceremonies at the end of each relay, where white bags with names written on them and candles inside line the track in memory or honor of cancer victims. “It’s a whole new ballgame when you see your name on a bag,” Leslie said, through tears.
“There is hope on the other side. You have to know that there are other people that have been there in the same shoes that you are in. Your day is coming. You will get to ring that bell. Don’t give up.”
Leslie said cancer survivors share a bond like no other. “It’s just something that no one else can understand until you’ve been there, done that,” she said. “The thing that meant the most to me while I was going through treatment was a picture that a cancer survivor and friend of mine gave me. It said, ‘You got this.’” Her sister had given it to her, she signed it and gave it to me, and I’m about to sign it and give it to someone else that was recently diagnosed. I haven’t wanted to let go of it just yet, but this person needs it, so it’s time. It’s time to pass it on.”
Since having breast cancer, Leslie is sending a more urgent message about breast cancer screening than she ever has. “Girls, go get your mammograms,” she said. “This is very important. There is a reason why early prevention is in place for mammograms. It may be a little bit uncomfortable for a few minutes, but it can save your life.”
Leslie’s new mantra is this: there’s no excuse for breast cancer. “If women are afraid that their insurance won’t cover it or can’t take care of it, I know that JRMC has programs in place that can help with that, and the American Cancer society does as well, with the Arkansas Department of Health. No woman is going to have to pay for her mammogram if that is the problem. There’s no reason not to get it.”
Leslie urges young women who aren’t getting mammograms yet to pay attention to their bodies and respond to anything out of the ordinary. “Do you breast self-exams, and if you feel anything out of the ordinary, if something doesn’t feel right, if your body doesn’t feel right, remember that you know your body and get it checked out,” she said. “No one can deny you that checkup.”
Leslie said she is thankful for the care she received from JRMC and the Arkansas Cancer Institute. “Being cared for closer to home makes a difference,” she said. “When it came time for my treatment, I knew without a shadow of a doubt that I wasn’t going to drive to Little Rock. We have amazing facilities in Jefferson County. I couldn’t imagine driving to Little Rock when I could get excellent care here.”
One meaningful part of the care she received was from Dr. Ruston Pierce and his office staff. “I have always thought of the ladies at Dr. Pierce’s office as family, and now my bond with them is so much closer,” she said. “They have been so good to me. The care I received and continue to receive from them has meant so much to me.”
Leslie said she will be honored to wear pink during this year’s Race for the Cure in November. “I have always participated in Race for the Cure, but this year, my friends and I have a team for me,” she said. “It’s always emotional to see so many ladies in pink, but this year, I’m going to be in pink with my daughter and two best friends by my side.”
Even though Leslie will be celebrating at this year’s Race for the Cure, she said it’s important to note that there are many cancer diagnoses, and each one is important. “I have always said this, even after I was diagnosed, pink is not the only color,” she said. “We have to continue fighting to cure all cancers.”
Overall, Leslie said her journey has been a blessing. “Before my diagnosis, I was unprepared,” she said. “Now I’m blessed. There were so many times I would come home, and someone had left dinner for my husband and me. I knew I was loved before, but when I was diagnosed, it just brought it to a whole new level.”
Leslie wants others who are battling cancer to know they’re not alone. “I may have had cancer, but cancer did not have me,” she said. “There is hope on the other side. You have to know that there are other people that have been there in the same shoes that you are in. Your day is coming. You will get to ring that bell. Don’t give up.”