Health Magazine

An Inflammatory Breast Cancer Survivor’s Story

Posted on the 28 October 2011 by Jean Campbell

Leah O’Donnell, records manager and court services coordinator for the city of Woodstock, Georgia was diagnosed with Stage III Inflammatory Breast Cancer in March. This is her story as written by Kristal Dixon and published in the Cherokee Tribune, Canton, Georgia, Oct 23, 2011.

WOODSTOCK —Adopted from South Korea at age two, Leah O’Donnell has no idea what her family medical history is. So when she learned she had Inflammatory Breast Cancer on March 2, 2011, she was “absolutely shocked.”

Inflammatory Breast Cancer Survivor
“I thought there was no possible way,” the 38-year-old said, adding she was 37 at the time and didn’t qualify to obtain annual mammograms. “I was shocked because I had no idea that there was more than one type of breast cancer.”

Inflammatory Breast Cancer is a rare, yet aggressive form of breast cancer that blocks the lymph vessels in the skin of the breast, according to the National Cancer Institute (NCI). The symptoms typically appear rapidly and include swelling, redness, warmth in the breast, ridged or pitted skin, heaviness and a burning or aching sensation.

O’Donnell, the records management and court services coordinator with the Woodstock Police Department, said she had been having symptoms about 45 days before seeing her gynecologist. Initially, she thought she had an infection due to the swelling and “stabbing pains,” but the biopsy confirmed the cancer diagnosis.

O’Donnell said Inflammatory Breast Cancer is rare and by the time patients start showing symptoms many are already at Stage III breast cancer.

O’Donnell had a bilateral mastectomy, seven rounds of chemotherapy and 32 radiation treatments.

She also said she opted for a total hysterectomy since she tested as Breast Cancer Susceptibility Gene, or BRCA, 2 positive, meaning she has a higher risk of developing ovarian cancer, and to “starve out her breast cancer,” since it’s estrogen fed.

The Woodstock Police Department and city employees rallied around O’Donnell. “The city of Woodstock has really been amazing,” she said. “They’ve made every accommodation. I would not have wished to have another employer.”

Assistant Police Chief Bart Giesey, O’Donnell’s immediate supervisor, told her he would shave his head if she lost her hair. Once she reported back to work, Giesey said the department set up stools and allowed O’Donnell to shave his and other officer’s heads.

The department also had a fundraiser at Tuscany Italian Grill in Towne Lake, a charity motorcycle ride and sold pink bracelets that say “I Wear Pink for Leah” to help pay for O’Donnell’s treatments and other needs. “We wanted to do anything we could to help her,” Giesey added.

The assistant chief hired O’Donnell in April 2008 and said he was in disbelief when he learned his employee had breast cancer. “It hurts when you see someone go through something like that,” he said. “She’s a family member and it’s just tough to watch someone to go through that.”

The department, he added, let O’Donnell know in advance that they would be there for her if she needed anything. He also said O’Donnell was adamant about being at work, noting she would leave early for treatments and return later in the day.

Since her diagnosis with Inflammatory Breast Cancer, O’Donnell said her life has changed “to the core.” She noted she stopped worrying about and making plans for the next day. She shared that when people ask how she’s doing, she said she typically responds by saying “Today is a good day.”

“I can’t think about a year from now,” she added.

O’Donnell has a bachelor’s of science degree in psychology from Kennesaw State University, an associate’s in applied science interpreting and a paralegal certificate from Emory University.

She lives in Woodstock with her son, Jack, 11.

O’Donnell finished radiation three weeks ago and noted it’s too early to determine her prognosis.

She noted the five-year survival rate for inflammatory breast cancer is between 25 and 40 percent and the cancer is known for its high rate of recurrence.

O’Donnell said she hopes other women will read her story and understand the various types of breast cancers that impact and change the lives of women on a daily basis.

She also said she hopes her story empowers women to take charge of their own health.

“It’s all about early detection,” she said. “It’s all about trusting your gut and trusting what’s going with your body and knowing when something is not right. It’s about being a fighter for your own health.”

Read more: Cherokee Tribune – Woman fights inflammatory breast cancer


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