Jennifer Leshuk-Toole can tell you exactly what she was doing on just about any given day between April 2010 and April of this year, because in those 12 months, she was fighting for her life. From the day she was diagnosed with breast cancer to the day she learned she was cancer-free, every step of the grueling process left an indelible mark on her brain, and her spirit. With tremendous support from family, friends and her medical team, today’s healthy Leshuk-Toole can reflect on the past year with appreciation for the lessons cancer has taught her and enjoys what she calls “the new normal” of everyday life. We recently caught up with the 39-year-old Scranton native to chat about her experience, and the fundraiser she’s planning to benefit Delta Medix Foundation for Cancer Care, a non-profit organization that helped her through this difficult time. “Cocktails for a Cause” will be held at Jilly’s Restaurant in Scranton on Saturday, Oct. 22. It’s a poignant time of year to host such an event because not only is October Breast Cancer Awareness Month, it was one year ago when friends and family held a fundraiser to benefit Leshuk-Toole. Meet cancer survivor and community volunteer Jennifer Leshuk-Toole…
The doctor who discovered you had cancer (Dr. Joseph “J” Bannon) was someone you consulted as a second opinion. You made an appointment with him because your inner voice was telling you something was wrong even after you had been given a clean bill of health. It’s a good thing you followed your gut instincts.
It is. That’s one of my biggest messages is not to be afraid. Don’t be afraid to go and make sure you advocate for yourself because if you don’t advocate for yourself, no one else is going to. And if you think it’s not right, chances are something’s not right.
How did you know you weren’t just being anxious?
Because every time I felt it (a long, tubular-like substance on her breast), I felt sick to my stomach. You just know. It’s like when people say you meet the right person, you know — you get that feeling. When something like this is happening, you know.
Part of your treatment was chemotherapy…
Chemotherapy was by far the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life. I fought it. I knew in the back of my mind that I had to do it, but I begged all of my doctors not to make me do this. And I had the statistics in front of me. With surgery alone I had a 63 percent cure rate and a 37 percent chance of re-occurrence. With chemotherapy, those numbers boosted to 83 percent and 27 percent. So there was no way I wasn’t doing it and I knew that logically, but it just makes you feel like nothing you’ve ever felt before – run down to the point where you can’t even open your eyes…After my treatments, I would be out for the count for about three days and then it would take me another four to five before I would even want to go anywhere or do anything. You lose your taste. Everything smells different. It’s awful.
How did you get through it?
My friends and my family. (Smiles). They were all amazing.
What a year.
It was a grueling year. It was a marathon, not a sprint, and I remember J saying to me in his office, “ This is going to be a long journey, but I want you to keep in the back of your mind that it’s going to be 12 months and once you get through it, you’re through it.” And Dr. Peter Cognetti, who’s my family doctor, also walked every step of the journey with me. He said the same thing to me. And they were both right. It was a very long year. But I’m through it. I’m fine. I had a PET scan on May 16 and I have the report. There it is in big, bold letters at the bottom of the page: No malignancies. So that makes it all worth it.
Is your life back to “normal” now?
It’s a new normal.
Are you back to work?
Yes. While I was going through this I worked for Verizon Communications, and I learned a lot. This illness has taught me so many lessons. One of them is that I come first and my health comes second and everything else comes after that. I knew I was meant to help people. Now I have changed professions, and I am a paraprofessional in the Scranton School District. I work with first grade through fifth grade learning support children who are absolutely amazing, and I go to work in the morning with a smile and I leave work with a smile.
Did you go back to school to make this change?
I’m enrolled in school again. I’m doing online courses right now and I’ll be heading to the University of Scranton for next semester to major in elementary education. So now my life is the “new” normal.
And now you’re planning a fundraiser on Saturday night. Why is this important to you?
This foundation is going to do so many things for so many people that any money that can be raised for them is just another person getting the help they need or the support they need and it’s important. When you get a diagnosis of cancer your world changes and to not have to have the burden of knowing, how am I going to have this test done because I don’t’ have insurance or what if I need to go a support group? Knowing that all this is going to be contained into one foundation is great. And you don’t have to be a patient of Delta Medix. Anybody who is diagnosed can benefit from this foundation. So this will be a way for me and my family to say thank you and to give back.
Cocktails for a Cause will be held on Saturday, Oct. 22 at Jilly’s Restaurant, 524 Court St., from 5 to 8 p.m. In addition to a wide variety of delicious hors d’ouvres and signature drinks, the event also features a silent auction with prizes including a pink watch provided by Boccardo Jewelers and a week-long stay at Hilton Head donated by Jilly’s owners Eric and Peggy Pacotti, and a Troll bracelet and Breast Cancer Bead donated by Outrageous, a night on the town package, and spa packages, to name a few. Tickets are $25 at the door. All proceeds benefit The Delta Medix Foundation. For more information, visit The Delta Medix Foundation for Cancer Care on Facebook.