Leslie: Rising to a New Perspective on Life

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Someday soon, artist and entrepreneur Leslie A. of Baltimore plans to turn the artistic tables on herself. Instead of creating art, for a change, she wants to receive it. And it will be an illustration that is a perfect symbol of her unwavering will to live.

“As a celebration of my getting past these last three years I'm going to have a phoenix tattooed on my left shoulder,” says the 41-year old breast cancer survivor. “I'm committed to living. That's what my tattoo will say to me and to anyone who sees it.”

The phoenix, of course, is a mythological bird that lives hundreds of years, then builds a nest that burns, turning the beautiful bird to ashes. But from the ashes a new young phoenix is born. Like Leslie, rising again to live.

A Life Begins to Burn

In fall 2009, Leslie's world began burning. She had recently lost her job and health care benefits when she found a lump on her left breast. It took three months for her to work with local agencies that could support her medical needs. By the time she could even afford a mammogram, she was diagnosed with Stage 4 inflammatory breast cancer.

But even as things were tumbling around her, Leslie was beginning her rise. When she was initially diagnosed at another Baltimore-area hospital it was, she said “horrible, just horrible.” Leslie was told matter-of-factly that she had only a year to live. She didn't accept it. Instead she set off on her own, interviewing doctors and plastic surgeons before finding precisely what she was searching for at Mercy Medical Center. Someone who understood art and beauty and the sheer will to live.

Someone just like her.

“At that time a woman from my breast cancer support group recommended I meet Dr. Brendan Collins from The Breast Reconstruction and Restoration Center at Mercy,” Leslie said. “I knew right away when I met him that he was the plastic surgeon I wanted there with me. He understood. He was so focused and compassionate. He engaged me as a person.”

A Fire Contained

The following September, after a year of chemotherapy, she had a mastectomy. Dr. Collins was there from the beginning, with Dr. Gauri Bedi of The Hoffberger Breast Center at Mercy, who performed her mastectomy. Dr. Collins performed plastic surgery that day to help the initial wound heal, using skin and muscle taken from Leslie's back. A year later he performed breast reconstruction, this time using skin and tissue taken from her stomach. The surgery took 16 hours.

“A lot of plastic surgeons want to talk you down, to minimize the work they have to do,” Leslie noted. “But Dr. Collins understood that it was as much my vision of beauty as his. I know what I want to look like, and he went the extra mile to do that. He was phenomenal.

“I can't tell you enough how comforting it was to have Dr. Collins participate in all my surgeries. I knew the cancer was going to be cut out and that the scars left were being done with a plastic surgeon's eye for minimal damage. That was so important.”

Rising from the Ashes

In her younger years, Leslie studied art at the Maryland Institute College of Art, then finished a degree in Fine Arts at the College of St. Mary's of Maryland. Her art these days is focused on creating jewelry, most of it with crystals designed in feng shui style, which focuses on energy elements such as balance and harmony.

And so does Leslie.

“For a year between the mastectomy and reconstructive surgery I only had one breast and a prosthetic. For a woman, that makes a big difference,” she said. “That's why Dr. Collins was so important to me. He understood the need for symmetry and harmony in body and mind. He even ensured the scar on my back from the reconstructive surgery was on the side and not right in the middle where you could see it when you wear certain dresses. It's that kind of thought and consideration that makes such a difference.”

In the Spring of 2012, Leslie had a setback when a small tumor was found in the chest wall where her original cancer had been discovered, and new bone metastases were found from her latest round of scans. The tumor has been removed and after radiation treatment she is now stable and starting a new course of medicine to heal her bones. And now she's focused on other things - exercising, working on her jewelry, watching her thick black hair regrow, and living her life.

“I am so grateful to Mercy and to Dr. Collins,” she said, “I obviously have a different perspective on life now because I came so close to dying.

“Cancer hijacks your whole life - your friends, your family, your job. But I've learned a lot from it too. Mainly, I am so thankful that I live here on the East Coast where there are such phenomenal doctors and such a phenomenal facility as Mercy. They had the same values as I do, and that's so important when you're going through something like this.”

“At this point,” she added, “I have no plans to die anytime soon. I am totally committed to living.”

And to getting a terrific tattoo that will remind her and others that from the ashes life can and will still rise, and rise, and rise.

The Hoffberger Breast Center at Mercy offers comprehensive breast care, thoughtfully designed for women undergoing the journey to overcome breast disease.