Editor’s Note: This blog post was guest written by Cmdr. Leanne Lusk, a breast cancer survivor, who has graciously chosen to share her personal story with fellow Coast Guard men and women as part of Breast Cancer Awareness Month.
Written by Cmdr. Leanne Lusk
I am Cmdr. Leanne Lusk, stationed at Coast Guard Headquarters in Washington D.C. I am married to a fellow Coast Guardsman, Chief Warrant Officer Jeffrey Lusk, and we have two beautiful children. This month, I am celebrating my 8th anniversary as a survivor of breast cancer.
In 2006, I was a 30-year-old first time mother to an infant and was preparing to transfer to a new job within the Coast Guard. I went in for a post-partum check-up and let my doctor know that I noticed a lump in my breast when I was breastfeeding that never seemed to go away. After some short term monitoring, he scheduled me for a mammogram and ultrasound the following month, which identified two questionable areas on each breast – one of which had micro-calcifications. I had one biopsy done of the area with the micro-calcifications and was reassured that it was probably nothing – especially since I was only 30 and had no family history of cancer. At this point, our daughter was eight-months-old.
About a week later, my husband and I received the news that changed our lives forever. I was initially diagnosed with Ductal Carcinoma In Situ based on the single biopsy and immediately started going through the additional biopsies, post-diagnosis blood work and x-rays. Three days later, my surgeon informed us that I was pregnant. Luckily, she had done her research before calling and assured us that women can undergo cancer treatment while pregnant and we would not be faced with the decision of choosing between my health and having another child. I met with my oncologist and my family found a maternal fetal specialist in New Jersey who specialized in pregnant cancer patients, who was able to join my team of doctors. Together, they developed a treatment plan that fit my desire for aggressive treatment. I found out that both tumors in my right breast were malignant, one of which was located on my chest wall, and the tumors in my left breast were benign. I then opted to have a single mastectomy just as I entered my fifth week of pregnancy.
During the mastectomy and sentinel node biopsy, the surgical team found two additional cancerous lymph nodes and two golf-ball-sized tumors in my breast. My diagnosis was upgraded to Invasive Ductal Carcinoma with a likely staging of IIIa, though I could not have the scans done to confirm due to the pregnancy. I also found out that I was Triple Positive, which was good news in terms of the types of chemotherapy I could then receive. I healed fairly quickly from the surgery and chose not to have additional lymph nodes removed. I spent the next several weeks learning about chemotherapy during pregnancy and found out that many types of chemo molecules are too large to transfer through to the fetus.
At 14 weeks in my pregnancy, I started chemotherapy that was deemed safe during pregnancy; an interesting cocktail of pills and intravenous drugs that I took weekly for five months. My husband and step-daughter helped me shave my head – first with a mohawk, then completely buzzed down to about 1/4-inch long. What was left of my hair really started to fall out, including my eyebrows and eyelashes. I definitely felt sick, lost my energy, my appetite and my taste buds…but I knew that I needed to watch my nutritional intake to help keep my baby as healthy as possible. In many ways, I feel that being pregnant through chemotherapy saved me because no matter what happened or how terrible I was feeling, I needed to make sure my unborn child had the best chance possible to live. I continued to work and volunteer in our daughter’s daycare in my free time as often as I could in between medical appointments. The outpouring of support I received from my fellow Coast Guardsmen, friends, family, and colleagues within the local community was absolutely amazing.
After five months of chemotherapy, I gave birth to a healthy baby boy at 37 weeks in my pregnancy. Just after our son turned 12 weeks old, I began another three months of the chemotherapy I couldn’t have while I was pregnant. I completed my chemotherapy seven years ago this month and got a short break to allow my red and white blood cell counts to improve before starting 28 days of radiation. Two years later, I chose to have a second prophylactic mastectomy and bilateral reconstruction and have been taking a follow-on medication for seven years now.
After completing eight months of chemotherapy, a month of radiation, having six various surgeries, and having two children in 16 months, I decided it was time to focus on my health again. My husband and I changed our eating habits and I began working out regularly. In 2011, I started participating in CrossFit classes at Coast Guard Headquarters and decided that I needed to start running again. Since that time, I have gotten certified as a CrossFit instructor and have participated in three Tough Mudders, and I have run eight half marathons, three full marathons my fourth will be the Marine Corps Marathon October 26 of this year, four 200-mile relays, and a trail relay, among other races. My journey, albeit a crazy one, has led to a healthier lifestyle for my family and me. My husband and our children have helped me train by accompanying me on my runs with their bikes. I run because I can and I teach CrossFit to help others learn their full potential, doing things they never thought possible.
My message is simple. Take care of yourself, be your advocate and if you are unable, find somebody who can. Life is full of surprises and each one of them is a blessing, regardless of whether or not we expected this journey.