PONTOTOC – In the fight against cancer, tanning beds aren’t considered to be among the most reliable of allies.
Studies have shown that using a tanning bed can increase the incidence of skin cancer, but skin cancer wasn’t Lisa Lepard’s problem.
“That probably saved my life, a tanning bed,” Lepard said. “I looked down and there was this dimpling on my left breast. It was huge.”
Lepard is associate dean of nursing at Itawamba Community College in Fulton, so she understood the gravity of her situation.
“I had to conduct a pinning ceremony for nursing graduates that night,” she said. “I couldn’t tell you a thing I said.”
On the next day, she went to the Breast Care Center, and the staff got right to work.
“They did a mammogram, an ultrasound and a needle biopsy, all on the same day,” the 49-year-old Pontotoc resident said. “As a nurse, I never had thought of the importance of having all of those tests done on one day. Typically, you would have to wait.”
The tests were on a Friday, and she didn’t get the official breast cancer diagnosis until the following Monday. She wasn’t surprised by the result.
“You kind of knew from looking at the doctor during the needle biopsy and looking at the nurses,” she said. “I knew.”
As a child, Lepard had seen the scars left from her grandmother’s mastectomy. That genetic connection was one of the factors she had in mind as she learned more about the disease.
“I was reading and reading and pulling down articles from the Internet,” she said.
When she met with her oncologist, he provided the options, but Lepard had already made her choice.
“I decided on an aggressive stance from the start. I didn’t want it to ever return,” she said. “Removing the whole breast, for me, was what I wanted to do.”
Before surgery, though, there was an important step. Lepard has two daughters, and she wanted them to understand what it meant to have a lump in a breast.
“I wanted them to feel the knot. I wanted them to feel what it was like,” she said. “They didn’t want to feel the lump, but you know your body better than anybody else. They needed to know what to look for.”
‘Because of them’
There were times when Lepard wanted to bury her head under the covers and pretend like everything was OK. The girls, Jenna and Jacque, provided Lepard with the extra motivation she needed to face the problem head-on.
“They’re the reason you go on. That’s the reason you fight this thing and do everything you can to find a cure. It was my girls,” she said. “I looked at my girls and said, ‘I’m fighting this with everything I have because of them.'”
Knowledge was key to Lepard’s battle with breast cancer, but it also caused problems.
The more Lepard thought about going through her first chemotherapy session, the more anxious she became.
“There were lots of moments when I wished I had no nursing background,” she said. “I knew that first treatment was coming. I got myself into a panic.”
It turned out that the actual treatment was no picnic, but it wasn’t nearly as bad as she’d expected.
“They knew what they were doing,” she said. “There was no vomiting because they have medicine to control it. I thought I was going to have a terrible reaction, but I didn’t.”
Lepard lost her hair because of the treatment, but she decided she wasn’t going to let it fall out one clump at a time. She and her daughters made an event of the day she shaved her hair.
“I wasn’t going to let cancer take everything. I was not going to let it control my every minute,” she said. “I took control of when I shaved my hair.”
She bought two wigs. One was long, voluptuous and curly, and it didn’t quite work. She bought another that was more subdued.
“I know there are women who are comfortable leaving it bald or wearing scarves or bandanas,” she said, “but I loved that wig.”
She’s a two-year survivor. She’s taking the anti-cancer drug, Tamoxifen, and visits with her oncologist every three months.
Lepard is writing a book about her experiences. Early in her diagnosis, someone gave her a journal and a pen. She filled the book with a tangled mixture of thoughts and feelings.
“I’ve tried to read the journal, but I had to stop,” she said. “It was not fun. It was filled with emotions and ‘Why me?’ I still haven’t read the journal in full. I will, though. I will.”
She expects her book to offer a comedic look at breast cancer. Her first chapter is tentatively titled “How to Choose the Perfect Recliner,” based on the chairs patients use during chemotherapy.
But the book also will include serious observations. Lepard said she’s been blessed by the outpouring of support she’s received from family, friends and colleagues.
Breast cancer was a hard, emotional fight. Now, she’s interested in enjoying the silver lining that came with the dark clouds.
“I don’t ever want to forget it. It was painful and tumultuous,” she said. “I want to learn from it. I will be a better mother. I will be a better friend. I will be a better daughter. I will learn from it.”
M. SCOTT MORRIS / NEMS Daily Journal