After Leslie Darrow found out she had breast cancer, she left it up to her doctors to design a treatment plan. And she decided to take charge of what she could: her attitude.
"I strongly feel like you get a diagnosis of cancer and ... the negative emotions associated with that, the fear and anxiety and sadness — all of those things just weaken your immune system, which I think makes it easier for the cancer to grow," said Darrow, 47, a mother of three who lives in Munster.
"I'm someone who likes to be in control. It just kind of hit me: What does cancer want? It wants me to be angry, sad, fearful. So I intended to be joyful, optimistic, confident, full of faith. I was determined to not give it an edge."
Three weeks after her diagnosis, in July 2018, her general surgeon, Dr. M. Nabil Shabeeb, performed a double mastectomy. In August, she saw her daughter off to college, at Butler University. On Sept. 1 of that year, she got married. On Sept. 5, she started chemotherapy.
She also continued working as the executive director of the Hartsfield Village retirement community in Munster and as vice president of post-acute services for Community Healthcare System.
"I was very determined to not let cancer be in the driver seat of my car," she said. "I was not going to let it be captain of my ship or schedule. That's kind of the mindset I took my journey with: I'm going to beat it and fold my treatment into my daily life and maintain (normalcy) for me and my family."
Fifteen months after her diagnosis, Darrow recently finished treatment and has begun breast reconstruction. She was declared cancer-free in December.
Throughout the process, her family and care team have been impressed with her demeanor as she fought a disease that takes the lives of more than 40,000 women every year in America.
"Leslie, she's a special patient," said her oncologist, Dr. Mohamad Kassar, who like the rest of her doctors, is affiliated with Community Healthcare System. "She was able to balance her journey through cancer therapy, and getting married to the love of her life, and being a professional and have a successful career. She was able to pursue all of them with a good balance. She was very positive."
Kassar noted that Darrow had HER2-positive breast cancer, a particularly aggressive form of the disease that is prevalent in a fifth of cases. But thankfully, he pointed out, there is now targeted therapy designed specifically for that type of breast cancer. In 2001, Darrow's medication, Herceptin, was part of a national clinical trial that Community Cancer Research Foundation in Munster was involved with.
Kassar said that about a decade ago that cancer would come back after treatment in about half of cases. Now, because of the new medication options, which have fewer side effects than chemo, the cure rate has increased dramatically.
Darrow opted to have both of her breasts removed, even though the tumors were only in one of them, to cut down on her anxiety that the cancer would return and for cosmetic reasons.
Her plastic surgeon from Munster, Dr. David Robinson, said that after her mastectomy he outfitted her with a tissue expander that would make room for her implants.
"I think the patients are very satisfied," he said of the procedure. "I try to tell the patient it's not going to exactly like how their natural breasts are. However, it gives them a sense of feeling whole again. It gives them a sense of not always being reminded of the mastectomy, as you would with either a prosthesis or no reconstruction."
Robinson said he was also inspired by her poise through such a difficult time.
"Leslie is an incredibly dynamic and positive woman," he said. "She has stood out to me because she is not only a role model for breast cancer survivors but also an advocate for breast cancer reconstruction."
Darrow has had a lot of support along the way. Friends organized an online meal train, where they would sign up to take turns bringing her food. Her mother, Judy Darrow, moved in with her after her diagnosis.
Judy said that she has benefitted from the experience as much as her daughter has from having her around.
"She's just a very up person, and she's been that way ever since she was a baby, a toddler," said Judy, 71, a retired health care worker who lived in Schererville. "I perceive myself as a positive person but just to see how she is I think she's made me even more a positive person, and I thank her for that."
Darrow has been in the stands cheering on her daughter's Munster High School volleyball games, which she would sometimes have to skip during her treatment. She is also planning the honeymoon she had to delay for the same reason.
She noted that she found her cancer during a self-exam, even though she just had a clean mammogram six months earlier. She still isn't exactly sure what caused her to check her breasts, something she'd never done before.
"I had this really, really nagging feeling. I can't explain it," she said. "For me, it's my faith. It's my aunt or a number of close friends who have died of breast cancer. For me, it was some kind of divine intervention. You don't do your first self-breast-exam and find cancer. I was meant to find it and meant to tell my story."