“We can treat you here,” Lori Leach’s physician told her. “But MD Anderson is right down the street.”
A few weeks earlier, Lori had noticed a small lump in her armpit. She didn’t wait long before she showed the lump to her doctor, who recommended keeping an eye on it.
The lump kept getting bigger. Lori decided to go to her local hospital in Austin for an ultrasound. It showed that the lump was 4 cm.
A biopsy revealed that Lori had metastatic melanoma. “I was in shock, and I was very scared,” says Lori, who had cared for her own mother while she underwent breast cancer treatment years earlier. “The unknown is terrifying – especially when you have four kids and a grandbaby that need you.”
Choosing MD Anderson
With her physician’s recommendation in mind, Lori asked her sister and brother-in-law – both doctors -- where she should seek treatment. They, too, recommended MD Anderson.
But it was another group that truly convinced the Southwest Airlines flight attendant: the MD Anderson patients she met on her planes.
“When I ask them how they can be so upbeat despite what they’re going through, they say it’s because of the comfort and confidence they get from their treatment at MD Anderson,” Lori says. “I never thought I would be in their shoes, but reflecting on the respect my passengers had for MD Anderson, I knew it was the place for me.”
Lori’s melanoma treatment
In November 2014, Lori came to MD Anderson and met with Jeffrey Gershenwald, M.D.
“He told me, if you were my daughter, this is what I would tell her to do,” Lori recalls. “Right then, I knew he cared about me.”
After Dr. Gershenwald performed a lymph node dissection and removed 23 lymph nodes from under her arm in November, Lori recovered from the surgery and spent the holidays with her family. She returned in early 2015 for radiation. Afterward, she started chemotherapy under the care of Isabella Glitza, M.D., Ph.D., to reduce the chances of her melanoma coming back. She was treated with a mix of three chemotherapy drugs as well as interleukin-2 and interferon. The therapy, called biochemotherapy, required her to be hospitalized for a full week during each treatment cycle.
During treatment, Lori’s vision got worse, and she struggled with short-term memory loss. She had trouble remembering people’s names and still has no recollection of some of her hospital stays. The entire process was exhausting for her.
“The only thing getting me through each day was the knowledge that my children needed me,” she says.
A difficult year
Lori’s family really did need her. Around the same time that she was undergoing melanoma treatment, her father had a stroke, her husband had a kidney fail and her home flooded. The circumstances, including her treatment, required the family to push back her daughter’s May wedding.
“It was a crazy year, but I’m blessed beyond measure,” Lori says, adding that it took a village for her to make it through 2015.
Her employer, Southwest Airlines, helped by flying family members to stay with her mom after her dad’s stroke and to keep Lori company when her parents could not.
And her MD Anderson care team became her second family. “My doctors and nurses actually sat next to me on my bed and held my hand and asked how I was doing,” Lori says. “Dr. Glitza called to check on my father and my husband.”
Finding the strength to keep fighting
Two of the people most instrumental in helping Lori get through treatment were her sister and her best friend, Kristin.
“You are going to do this,” Kristen told her. “You don’t have a choice. And you don’t have to do it alone because we’re going to do it together.”
Kristin’s words gave Lori the strength to keep fighting.
“If I didn’t have that voice in my head and their strength, I don’t think I could’ve done it,” says Lori, who has since learned the importance of not overdoing it and taking care of herself first.
She’s also learned that it’s OK to let others take the reins. “You have to let the people that care about you help you. You can’t do it alone. You have to be able to lean on other people and ask for help,” Lori says. “I’ve learned that life is short and you can’t just go, go, go, all the time. I’ve learned that everything should be a balance: work, family, exercise, the things you eat.”
The face of a fundraising campaign
Lori is the latest cancer survivor featured in Jason's Deli's Strike Through Cancer campaign, which raises money to support cancer research at MD Anderson. A photo of Lori with her family appeared on specially marked water bottles from January through March 2016.
“I wanted to participate in this campaign to help raise cancer awareness,” Lori says. “I think it’s important for cancer patients to know that they are not alone. Family, friends and even your colleagues at work can be a shoulder to lean on.”
Learn more about the Jason’s Deli Strike Through Cancer campaign.