Story and Photo by Elise Sandlin | Contributing Writer
Leslie Haines, a Visual Communications professor at Middle Tennessee State University, says she was in the best shape of her life when she found out about her diagnosis of nearly Stage 3 breast cancer.
It was like any other ordinary night in 2015, when Haines rolled over in bed and felt a large lump in her left breast. At 54, Haines had regular mammograms and wasn’t worried in the least, but family encouraged her to get checked up on anyway. Her doctor immediately told her it might be a reason for concern and sent her to get a biopsy.
“The worst thing about a diagnosis is the waiting,” Haines said, sitting in her office in early October, dressed in a bright yellow pantsuit.
A few days later, she got the call that it was cancer. Haines’ initial thought was, “Oh shit.” She said, “I was just getting my life back together after my divorce, figuring out who I was. Everything was going great, and it was like boom. Curveball.”
Haines said one of the most important parts of the journey is finding a good doctor. “You know this is going to be a long journey. I want a good surgeon, yes, but I also want a human being that will listen to my concerns and answer my questions like they give a damn.” After visiting several offices, she found a physician that worked for her and began her journey to defeat her cancer.
In August and September of 2015, she had two traumatic surgeries that determined the severity of the cancer and removed lymph nodes in her left breast and armpit. This was followed by a lighter chemo treatment at Haines’ request so she could attend one of her own art shows before getting sick from the treatment. She continued teaching at MTSU during this time as well.
By January 2016, Haines’ needed “The Red Devil” treatment, known to any breast cancer survivor as one of the harshest chemo treatments. Haines’ received her treatment on Wednesday, and the side effects wouldn’t kick in until a day after, on Fridays, so she was able to keep teaching a Monday and Wednesday class, while lying sick on the couch all weekend long. “The Red Devil” caused her to lose her hair as well.
“I went with the bald look, but people around here just thought it was a cosmetic choice. Another professor didn’t know till months later. She’s like ‘I just thought you did it because you looked so amazing.’ Thankfully I have a good-shaped head,” Haines laughed to herself. “You lose your eyebrows, your eyelashes. It’s really weird.”
Haines’ said her experience made all the little stuff go away. “It puts life into perspective for you. It was quite life-changing,” she said. “Being an artist, at some point I knew I would deal with it creatively.”
She finished her treatment in April 2016 but continued to have checkups every three months for the next two years and every six months for two years after that.
In January 2017, she joined a program at the YMCA called After Breast Cancer. The program has free sessions up to six weeks to help survivors grow stronger. Pink Certified Trainers are educated to help women deal with the side effects of having breast cancer, focusing on different areas of strength they’d like to regain.
“What I didn’t expect out of it was that kind of comradery of the eight of us, and the other seven women that had been through the same thing. We’re sitting there discussing things they’re not going to talk about to just anyone. It was a really great experience,” Haines shared.
At the end of the six weeks, each woman was meant to share her plans following the program. Surrounded by these women, at a beautiful lake outside on a beautiful day, Haines was struck by the pure strength of her friends. During her treatment, her daughter had always called her Wonder Woman, and as Haines’ looked around at her fellow survivors, she thought, “These are the real Wonder Women.”
Haines was inspired to create beautiful, personal portraits of each of these women with a photo of the women’s faces, a quote they got to choose, and interests and colors they enjoyed artistically placed within the frame of the portrait. Haines received a grant from MTSU to be able to create her work, and the show displayed at the Nashville Airport with the Exhibits at BNA in February 2020. Each woman was able to receive her own portrait to take home as well.
“All cancer is horrible, but I think this one is different in the way it affects you,” Haines said. “It’s such a physical, feminine aspect. We are warriors in many, many senses of the word.”
Haines has been applying to more grants and looks forward to the possibility of receiving another one in the future in order to create more impactful art.
Haines is now over six years cancer free. To remember her journey, Haines tattooed a pink ribbon in the shape of a “W” for Wonder Woman, a design of her daughters’, below her right shoulder. The tattoo covers the scar of where the port used to be, a device used to draw blood and give treatments during her cancer. As for life after the disease, she definitely has a good perspective moving forward. “I’m going to enjoy my life while I’m here. I could get hit by a car tomorrow!” Haines laughed. “Stop worrying about things. That’s kind of my attitude now. You can’t live in fear.”
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