In Quincy, Mass, there is a group of women who love each other very deeply. Some of them are related by blood, and some of them through the beauty of strong friendships are undoubtedly family despite what any blood test might indicate.
This group of women, just like many other circles of women across the globe, share in each other’s joy, they laugh together, and they cry together. This Mother’s Day weekend we’re telling the story of this group in Quincy as a reminder of how important these communities of women are, especially during times of need.
In 2013, Leanne O’Donoghue was 41-years-old. A self-described goofball with family and friends, but also a fastidious, dedicated, and hard worker.
She had been feeling tired lately; she was losing weight. But, she casually passed it off as stress related. After all, she was going through a divorce and balancing being a single mom of a second grader with the never-ending and often heart-breaking workload of a DCF investigator; truly enough to make anyone tired.
Like many of us, Leanne had “lumpy” or cystic breasts. She had put off the recommended 40-year-old mammogram, as there wasn’t any family history of breast cancer. And really, it wasn’t like she had the luxury of spare time.
But, one of those lumps in her breast started to get bigger.
She started to feel even more tired; weight was dropping off her body.
She knew something was wrong.
She was right.
In December of 2013, doctors confirmed Leanne’s fear. Right before Christmas, her mom, Carol Hanlon, and step-dad John received the news that would pierce any parents’ hearts; their daughter had Stage 3 breast cancer. And they reacted as parents should.
Knowing the strife ahead of them, and prepared to fight, Carol and John immediately bought a bed. John set up a bedroom for Leanne in their home. At that same time, that circle of women in Quincy began to tighten and react.
While many of us were coming off joyful holiday vacations and penning resolutions, Leanne started off the New Year with a right breast mastectomy. Shortly after, doctors decided to remove more lymph nodes and within three months of learning cancer had invaded her body doctors installed a port and Leanne started to fire back at the cancer with Chemotherapy.
Leanne and Sean After First Mastectomy
With Leanne being Carol’s only daughter, they have a very tight bond. Facing cancer brings out primal emotions. Anger and sadness can become debilitating. Carol supported her daughter through that emotional chaos. She talked with her daughter for hours about her fears. She cooked for her and took care of her grandson, Sean. She delivered ironclad love and care to one of the major loves of her life.
Leanne’s dear friends did the same. They started a collection to buy a wig for Leanne. Something for which she is so grateful, as she was worried about being bald around her son. Her close friends, Diane, Linda, Amy and JoJo acted as true friends do. They helped Leanne get to treatments. When Leanne was having “bad” days, they went to her house, opened the curtains, let in fresh air, and lifted Leanne out of her funk.
Not only did Leanne’s circle help her, but women from the outside came into the circle to offer support. The Ellie Fund, an organization that understands how important it is for women to focus on their health and spend time with their family during a fight with breast cancer, provided house-cleaning and grocery gift cards. Women supporting women is a mantra all women should adopt. Even the house-cleaner went above and beyond, running errands and being another means of emotional support.
Everyone pitched in with Sean. But, it is clear Leanne had already done a perfect job raising her son. Diane Jeffers, who shares 32 years of friendship with Leanne and who stayed with Leanne after one of her surgeries, calls Sean Leanne’s “mini-me.” A good and caring boy.
Fighting cancer is not easy, fighting a late stage cancer is even harder. You know this if you’ve been in that boxing ring before or if you’ve witnessed it firsthand otherwise. There can be setbacks. Chemo weakens one’s immune system. Unfortunately, Leanne’s story involved these setbacks. In April 2014, Leanne caught a stomach bug. Something that for most of us involves a day or two off from work. But, when Leanne got a stomach bug, she was rushed to the ER in an ambulance. She needed a blood transfusion. Her mother Carol’s heart was breaking and terror was taking over her mind. But, she stayed strong and by her daughter’s side. Leanne’s friends joined Carol, as did her Aunt Sybil. Leanne needed them more than ever.
This wouldn’t be Leanne’s only hospital stay. Sometimes doctors need to change the chemical arsenal aimed at cancer. But, unfortunately, those drugs do not just take out cancer. Chemo affects everything from memory to the nervous system. As doctors switched the chemo meds, Leanne’s body reacted. In May 2014, she endured such horrible pain she required more hospitalization.
These were Leanne’s dark days. She didn’t know what her outcome would be. Her mom, her aunt Sybil, friends, and the kind hearts at the Ellie Fund helped Leanne when she was at her worst.
Despite being at her worst, there’s something you should know about Leanne. She’s a fighter and an inspiration. Just like she has with her mother, Leanne and her son Sean have an unbreakable bond, and he still needed her. And don’t forget, she was still going through that divorce. This is where those traits of dedication and hard-working come into play. Through the devotion of her tribe and self-will, Leanne made it through those dark days.
In June 2014, Leanne not only completed chemotherapy, but she also finalized her divorce. She still had radiation ahead, but things were looking better.
That laudable group of women threw a party for their good friend. That same night, Sean played in his all-star baseball game. That brave boy showed support for his mom at the game by wearing a breast cancer bracelet, proving she had taught him well.
After Chemo Party
From August to September, Leanne completed what she thought was the last bullet to take out cancer- radiation.
In October, the group threw another party to celebrate the end of treatment. Only, a pall hung over this party. Just a few weeks prior, doctors found a lump in Carol’s right breast, a lump that they previously called benign. Leanne’s true best friend, the woman who would have given her life for her- her mother, now had breast cancer.
Sometimes it feels like life punches you in the face. There wasn’t any family history of breast cancer. Neither women tested positive for any gene. How could this be happening to the both of them? That strong group of women in Quincy just got punched again, and hard.
But, that punch would not knock them out. Here is where friendships, love, and supporting each other is so important. They banded together once again. Carol, the rock that she is, proved unflappable. Even though on the inside she was terrified, she never let her daughter see it. She went about cooking dinners, and said it was “no big deal.” Carol had two lumpectomies to remove the stage 1 cancer.
Once again, the Ellie Fund stepped in and provided support. This time to Carol, with grocery and gas cards.
Before they knew it, it was Christmas time again. One year later, 2014, and the lives of Leanne and Carol were forever changed. Chemo and radiation had taken a toll on Leanne’s body, but she was back at work. She needed to work. During the stress of work and worrying about her mom, Leanne received more bad news. A mammogram found a lump in her left breast. Although thought to be benign, doctors planned to remove the lump in early in 2015. Especially, given Leanne’s history and Carol’s “benign” lump.
This time, the mother and daughter were entering the New Year with Carol receiving radiation and Leanne making plans for a left mastectomy in March. But, the two women held up each other, and doctors scheduled Leanne for reconstruction in June of 2015.
But, do you remember how we talked about complications? Even though a fight with cancer might seemingly be ending, the effects can last a lifetime. Chemotherapy had put Leanne into early menopause, which resulted in uncontrollable bleeding. Being a breast cancer patient, hormones weren’t an option to correct the problem. So, her medical team canceled reconstruction and scheduled a hysterectomy instead.
Finally, in November of 2015, Leanne’s plastic surgeon completed reconstruction. (She still has one more surgery scheduled in 2016.)
December had become a meaningful month to Leanne. In thinking about the two prior Decembers, she evaluated the importance of life. Her health wasn’t perfect. She wasn’t happy. She still hadn’t processed the ordeal from the past two years. After 18 years of working at DCF, Leanne resigned from her job.
She recognized to get better she needed a break and needed to focus on her health. Through a horrible ordeal, Leanne learned a lesson that only some of us will ever garner. Enjoy the moment. Don’t focus on the past or worry about the future. Life has the potential to be shockingly short and to throw punches that might put you down for a bit. Through Leanne’s long and arduous journey she now has an extraordinary perspective on life.
From that perspective and after all the support she received, Leanne now wants to use her life to give back to the people that helped her and women at large. Looking forward, using her experience working with children, she would love to help single moms fighting breast cancer and their children.
Just this past Sunday, she and Carol volunteered for the Ellie Fund at the Champion for Cancer Walk, operating an information booth. The response was overwhelming. They heard so many stories from women who could have used help like what the Ellie Fund offers, but didn’t know about it. They talked to women and men who after hearing about the organization now want to support it. Leanne felt so fulfilled to have the opportunity to return the love to the Ellie Fund.
We know Leanne’s story is not over. She has so much to offer and she and Carol were so kind to let us into their home and hear their story. We’re so grateful for all they shared and for their time!
We want to share Leanne’s own words, “The message I am hoping to get out there is for women fighting breast cancer to know they are not alone. There are a lot of organizations that can help women and their loved ones through their journey. The Ellie Fund is an amazing organization that recognizes the struggles women face during treatment. One of the many services they offer is childcare. This is an invaluable resource for single mothers with limited support. I also want to bring awareness to people who don’t know a lot about breast cancer. A women’s journey does not end when chemotherapy and radiation are completed. I used to think it was before I got sick. It has been two years for me since I finished treatment and I’m still not done with reconstruction due to other medical issues. I will never be the same person I was before I got sick. I live in the moment now and no longer put things off for tomorrow. I would like to thank all my “Quincy Girls” especially my friends Diane, Linda, Amy and JoJo who went above and beyond helping me after surgeries, bringing me to chemotherapy and helping me with my son. I would also like to thank my stepfather, John, who did everything for my mom and me. He waited for hours with my mom while I was in all my surgeries. Thank you to my father and stepmother for their support. I also have an amazing medical team who was there for me every step of the way. Special thanks to Dr. Lini Bhatia, Dr. Stacey Gore, Dr. Terri Halperin, and Dr. Paige Tellar. I will forever be grateful for the care and compassion I received from all of them. Above all, I want to thank my mom Carol. I didn’t think it was possible for us to get any closer but having our journey at the same time is a bond that cannot be explained, it has to be experienced to understand truly.”
This Mother’s Day let’s extend the celebration to all of the women in our lives who have given us love, care, and support. You don’t necessarily have to be a mother to act like one. We should all carry that belief in our hearts.
Please consider donating to the Ellie Fund. You can also contribute by donating time or services as well.
Happy Mother’s Day Ladies. Let your “group” know how much you love them.