“It felt quite strange saying ‘I have cancer.’ It was surreal and hard to describe … It was hard to wrap my head around the fact that I was sick, and this type of breast cancer was aggressive.” — Leonie Roberts
In September 2022, Leonie Roberts, 51, felt a lump in her left breast and thought, “Wait, that’s new.”
Leonie usually does not push things off; the accountant in her finds answers to problems and analyzes everything. Perhaps it was self-preservation because she was not worried about breast cancer at the time. She continued getting ready to take her daughter to visit a college in New Jersey.
Breast cancer diagnosis
The mammogram showed a lump that needed further investigation. Leonie also had a breast ultrasound, and then fellowship-trained, board-certified radiologist Dr. Gilda Boroumand performed a biopsy.
Leonie was diagnosed with triple-negative breast cancer (TNBC). TNBC is usually more aggressive and harder to treat than hormone receptor-positive or HER2-positive breast cancer.
“It was difficult not knowing why or how I got TNBC and the randomness of it. It’s hard to understand the unknown,” Leonie said. “But overall, I felt surprisingly calm. I believe that my strong faith played a big role.”
“It felt quite strange saying ‘I have cancer.’ It was surreal and hard to describe,” Leonie said. “Other than a lump, I had no symptoms and felt fine. It was hard to wrap my head around the fact that I was sick, and this type of breast cancer was aggressive.”
Leonie said the “realness” of her diagnosis hit her on Thanksgiving Day. She met with Dr. Jeanne Capasse, her breast surgeon, just a few days before the holiday and had an in-depth discussion on the biopsy results and next steps.
“On Thanksgiving Day, we were eating and laughing when I suddenly realized there were eight women sitting around the table,” Leonie said. “The realness of the cancer statistic hit me like a ton of bricks; out of eight of us, I was the one.”
Women have a 13% risk of developing breast cancer. That means one in eight women will get breast cancer in their lifetime.
“I felt both sad and grateful. Sad that it was me, but grateful it wasn’t one of my family members,” Leonie said.
Breast cancer treatment
Surgery for breast cancer
Leonie had breast conservation surgery based on the size and location of the tumor. On December 16, 2022, Dr. Capasse performed the lumpectomy, also called a partial mastectomy, at Norwalk Hospital. Dr. Capasse is a fellowship-trained, board-certified breast surgeon who has dedicated more than 35 years to helping people with breast cancer.
“Surgery was the easiest part of my treatment plan because I wanted the tumor out as quickly as possible,” Leonie said. “I went home the same day as surgery and recovered well. I didn’t have pain or take pain medication and was able to enjoy a wonderful Christmas,” Leonie said.
“Dr. Capasse is nothing short of amazing. She’s compassionate, knowledgeable and incredibly skilled,” Leonie said. “There is brilliance in the care and work she does. While there’s ugliness in cancer, there’s a bit of artistry in how Dr. Capasse treats it; it’s difficult to see any scars from the surgery.”
Medical oncology for breast cancer
Leonie had genetic testing that confirmed she did not have an inherited genetic predisposition to breast cancer. At Nuvance Health, breast cancer care teams use this information to personalize treatment plans. For Leonie, this meant she had the option of a less aggressive chemotherapy regimen.
Starting in January 2023, Leonie had chemotherapy at the Whittingham Cancer Center at Norwalk Hospital.
“Chemo was the hardest part of my treatment plan. I dreaded having chemo, most likely because of how horribly it’s generally portrayed on TV and elsewhere; the nausea, hair loss, lack of appetite and frailty.”
“Dr. Zahrah answered my many questions with the kind of care and diligence that made me feel like I was part of his family,” Leonie said about Dr. George Zahrah, medical director of Nuvance Health Medical Practice Hematology/Oncology Norwalk and fellowship-trained, board-certified hematologist/oncologist.
“Dr. Zahrah was compassionate and patient. Our discussions helped me weigh how to annihilate TNBC while doing the least amount of damage to my body. I had peace of mind that I was making the right choice for ME and felt confident in the treatment method,” Leonie said.
During chemotherapy infusions, Leonie focused on the City of Norwalk view from the cancer center and the warmth of the people inside it.
“The cancer center was beautiful, inside and out,” Leonie said. “We were in a club we did not want to be a part of, but the other patients and caregivers I met were supportive and encouraging.”
She also listened to music. Leonie loves music and her family and friends sent her gospel songs that were “uplifting” and “extraordinarily healing.”
Leonie experienced some standard side effects from chemotherapy, including changes to her taste buds and color of her nails. For support, she met with Laura Kahn, registered dietitian oncology nutritionist and Michelle Dailey, licensed family therapist for oncology at Norwalk Hospital.
She tried cold cap chemotherapy to reduce the chances of her hair falling out. While she still lost most of her hair, she said it is “growing back faster than I thought it would.”
Even though Leonie had fatigue, which increased with each session, she was still able to walk over a mile almost every day.
“I tried to hydrate as much as possible, eat healthy and rest during chemo,” Leonie said.
Radiation oncology for breast cancer
After chemotherapy, Leonie had radiation therapy under the care of Dr. Philip Gilbo, chief of radiation oncology at Norwalk Hospital.
Traditional breast cancer radiation therapy uses a permanent tattoo to mark where to deliver the radiation. Leonie was prepared to have a tattoo even though she was unhappy about it.
“I’m not a fan of tattoos and was even less thrilled with the idea of having a permanent reminder of cancer on my body,” Leonie said.
By the time Leonie started radiation in May 2023, Norwalk Hospital was offering a new tattoo-less radiation therapy for breast cancer.
“It would be an understatement to say I was ecstatic to have tattoo-less radiation. I literally squealed with joy when Dr. Gilbo told me they were implementing it the week I was starting my radiation treatment. I was so thrilled, I literally danced out the room at the end of my appointment!” Leonie said.
“Dr. Gilbo was knowledgeable and patient. He answered all my questions and explained in detail the aspects of my treatment,” Leonie said.
Leonie had standard skin reactions including peeling and hyperpigmentation that can happen from radiation. She used a medicated ointment daily during radiation which helped.
“My skin was a bit more sensitive to the treatment at the end and required an additional medicated ointment, but it healed quickly,” Leonie said.
“I was concerned about the toll chemo and radiation would take on my body, but my care team was always a step ahead, making sure that any side effects were kept at bay and didn’t derail my treatment,” Leonie said.
Life after breast cancer
“Life is a journey, and every day is a gift. I’m learning how to enjoy it all from the sweet and thrilling parts to the challenging and tough parts,” Leonie said.
Today, she said she feels “healthy, hopeful and grateful.”
“Physically, I feel great, except that I get tired a bit more easily and am not as strong as I was before breast cancer. But I’m working on getting stronger and seeing improvements every day,” Leonie said. “It’s in no small part to the post-cancer care provided by my healthcare team.”
Leonie goes to physical therapy and sees a lymphatic specialist to manage lymphedema, a side effect from breast surgery that can cause swelling in the arm.
“I’ve done yoga and acupuncture, both of which were a first for me, and the results have been very beneficial,” Leonie said.
Nuvance Health offers acupuncture at the Norwalk Breast Surgery office, located in the Breast Center at iPark.
Leonie is also participating in the Livestrong exercise program at the YMCA, and breast cancer survivorship program with Mary Heery, advanced practice nurse practitioner at Norwalk Hospital.
“One of the best reasons for being treated at Norwalk Hospital is the cancer survivorship program, led by Mary Heery. Mary was a godsend. If it wasn’t for her, I wouldn’t have addressed my lymphedema so early on and participated in various programs that helped me heal.”
Family is of the utmost importance to Leonie; she looks forward to spending more quality time with her loved ones. She and her husband have been married for 27 years and have two daughters. She has six siblings, and her husband is also from a large family.
Today, she looks forward to going back to work. She also plans to travel and experience new cultures, something near and dear to her heart being born in London, England and spending a couple years in Jamaica. Leonie has visited over 20 countries on four continents and her goal is to see all seven.
Tips from a breast cancer survivor
Leonie is sharing her experience to help others.
Get your screening mammograms
“It’s important to take care of yourself — mind, body and spirit. I encourage every woman to do self-breast exams and get annual screening mammograms. Catching the disease early is very important in terms of care and cure,” Leonie said.
“I want to show my daughters self-care isn’t a luxury, it’s a must for wellness. Eat healthy, exercise, spend time with loved ones, laugh often and live purposefully,” Leonie said.
Allow others to help you during cancer treatment
“It was hard being the person needing care. I’m usually the caregiver and accompany family members to appointments, ask questions, coordinate next steps and handle what needs to be done,” Leonie said. “It was a bit challenging for the roles to be reversed. I had to adjust to letting go of the reigns and allowing others to take care of me.”
“The love and care of my family, friends and church community gave me hope and strength — I had an army of support. Everyone continually asked what my family and I needed; they cooked meals, took my daughters to movies and out to dinner out — you name it, they did it!” Leonie said. “My church community also prayed for me, which carried me through my journey.”
“My sister is my rock. She called me every day and restructured her schedule to come with me to every chemo session. She and my husband were my healthcare advocates. They rock!” Leonie said.
“My husband and girls kept me laughing and upbeat,” Leonie said.
At first, Leonie said sharing the news with her husband and daughters was hard because she was concerned about how they would handle it.
“Being open and honest about what was happening helped me and my family; we talked about everything,” Leonie said. “I told my daughters they could ask me anything and nothing was off limits. They also came to one of my chemo infusions, which I think really helped.”
“My husband and girls were phenomenal,” Leonie said. “They handled the home responsibilities, which I usually did.”
Be an active participant in your cancer treatment plan
“I truly believe I had the absolute best healthcare team. I trusted them and knew they were experts,” Leonie said. “But it’s equally important to be an active participant in your treatment plan. My motto is trust but verify, and I got an independent second opinion.”
Live with compassion and purpose after cancer
“While having cancer can be alarming, it can also have some positive aspects. It’s helped me shift my focus to things that are most important, which have become a bit crisper and clearer,” Leonie said.
“I’m calmer and more understanding of others. I extend more grace to others and myself, because you never know what someone else is going through,” Leonie said. “I also try to have an ‘attitude of gratitude’ as my sister says.”
“Lastly, I think it’s important to live a meaningful life with intention. For me, that means aiming to fulfill the purpose for which I was placed on the Earth. I believe we are all born with gifts and abilities, and it’s vitally important that we share them with each other. We are stronger and better when we work together, building each other up,” Leonie said.
Disclaimer: Outcomes from cancer vary from person to person. No individual results should be seen as typical.