Evenings filled with homework help, family dinners and bedtime are returning for a single mother.
Nicole Lelenko is used to spending her evenings with 9-year-old son, Ezra Thomas, helping him with his schoolwork and making their dinner. But activities that had been normal became sporadic earlier this year following her breast cancer diagnosis.
Seven months after finding the tumor, Lelenko has her evenings with Thomas back.
But her days haven’t completely returned to normal.
Date of diagnosis
Feb. 16, 2012
Type of cancer
Stage 2 ductile carcinoma in her left breast
Double mastectomy, chemotherapy, gene therapy
What has cancer taught me
It’s taught me that I have a second chance at life, because I could have died.
How cancer has changed me
I don’t take any moment for granted.
What I would tell someone who was just diagnosed
I don’t know exactly what I would tell them. I would let them ask questions.
Lelenko, 40, hasn’t had enough strength return to resume looking for a full-time job, and she still has to set aside a few hours each week to receive IV medication as part of gene therapy that will continue into next year. Her treatment included a double mastectomy and chemotherapy.
In the next few weeks, Lelenko will follow up with a surgeon to talk about reconstruction, but she’s in no rush to have the procedure.
“I’ve been through so much that I just want to be left alone for a little while,” she said.
Lelenko was in the shower when she first felt the lump, about the size of a peanut, in her left breast. When she saw a doctor to have it checked, the nurse who checked her in told her not to worry, that the lump was most likely caused by caffeine.
Lelenko had no trouble believing that. She had last seen her gynecologist just four months ago. She didn’t have a mammogram, but her doctor hadn’t been worried about her health.
“In my mind I still thought ‘Well, it can’t be cancer. I can’t have cancer. I’m not old enough,’” she said.
Lelenko had a mammogram and an ultrasound, which revealed four small lumps. The lumps were biopsied, and Lelenko was told to expect the results Feb. 17. The call with the results, that three of the four lumps were cancerous, came a day early.
She had been helping Thomas with his homework when the call came. Shortly after answering the phone and hearing the news, her eyes filled with tears and she ran into the family room to finish the call.
She doesn’t remember much about what she was told, just that she walked back into the kitchen and told her son she had cancer.
Nancy and Paul Lelenko were on vacation in South Carolina when their daughter called to tell them about the tests. Her parents had planned to be away on vacation for a month, but they started packing their bags in case the test results were cancerous. When Nicole Lelenko told them she had cancer, they immediately returned to the Center Grove area.
Nancy Lelenko had a difficult time accepting the news, and she asked friends of the family at church to pray for her and Paul as well as for their daughter.
“Why couldn’t it have been me? Why did it have to be my child?” she asked after the diagnosis.
Initial tests showed that the cancer was Stage 1, and Lelenko met with a surgeon and made plans to have a lumpectomy within two weeks. But a few days before surgery, Lelenko changed her mind and decided to undergo a double mastectomy.
“I don’t want it coming back. Ever. Let’s do this once and get it over with,” she said.
A preoperative test later revealed she had made the right call. The cancer had advanced to Stage 2. Part of the reason for the rapid growth was that she tested positive for HER2 gene, which causes breast cancer to grow more rapidly.
On March 1, Lelenko had both breasts removed, and she started chemo a month later.
She had heard horror stories of chemo about people dealing with constant nausea and diarrhea, but those symptoms never arrived. Jaw pain and fatigue were the worst she went through.
Before starting chemo, she had dark hair with highlights that fell to her stomach; but after the first treatment, her hair started coming out. To show support, her family had a head-shaving where Lelenko, her father and uncle shaved their heads.
As the clippers cut what was left of her hair, the reality of what was happening to her started to sink in.
“Wow. This is really real,” she said.
Lelenko wasn’t working when she was diagnosed but had insurance. Last summer a friend had recommended she buy a policy for herself in case anything happened.
Her co-payments have totaled $5,500, which she has been able to cover through her savings. So far the insurance company has paid more than $100,000, she said.
“I think God was on my shoulder or something,” she said.
Thomas went to stay with his aunt for six weeks while his mother recovered from surgery. Lelenko also wonders how much he understands about what’s happened.
Early on the boy asked his mother if she was going to die, and she told him no.
Thomas sometimes asked Nancy Lelenko about what she was going through, and sometimes he and his friends from school talked about it. But other than his first few questions, he hasn’t mentioned it to his mother, other than to tell her that she looks beautiful.
Lelenko’s salt-and-pepper-colored hair had grown out about an inch by Aug. 1, a sign that she was recovering, but she still had more surgery and treatments ahead.
Hormones contributed to Lelenko’s cancer, and because of that she underwent a hysterectomy in August. She has more than two dozen gene treatments left, which involve her having medicine injected through a port in her chest. She wants to take a break before undergoing reconstruction.
Nancy Lelenko remembers her daughter being upbeat throughout most of the year. Periodically she had low points — she had to delay her final chemo treatment because her cell count was too low, and Nicole Lelenko initially saw that as an obstacle to her recovery. But she rallied herself, spent a week resting and was then well enough to complete the final treatment, Nancy Lelenko said.
Lelenko didn’t spend much time after the diagnosis thinking about how others were dealing with her cancer. But recently, after the child of a family friend was diagnosed with leukemia, she found herself asking how she could possibly deal with such a situation.
Then she realized her parents had to do exactly that.
“They felt helpless. They couldn’t do anything to help but be there and pray for me,” she said.
Lelenko doesn’t enjoy asking people for favors or help, nor does she want a lot of people to know her personal business, and so she hasn’t told many people about the cancer. But part of coping has involved talking with an old friend from high school who also is battling breast cancer.
She also meets regularly with a counselor who is another breast cancer survivor.
“Unless it happens to you, no one would understand,” she said.