It started with a simple gesture. "Hey, new girl in school, come sit with me," Lauren McNutt remembers.
When Lauren switched schools in third grade, Leanne Langon welcomed her from the start.
It was the beginning of an enduring friendship that in many ways defies the odds. Lauren and Leanne have shared a wealth of experiences together over the years: high school, sports, dance, graduations, travel, weddings, babies, book clubs, and girls' nights.
Today, they even live less from a mile from each other – not all that far from where they met as children. "We both wanted to be in Anderson, and we were lucky to find houses that are close to each other," Leanne says.
For two who shared so much of their lives together, they never expected such devastating news. News that each said they would never wish on a worst enemy.
They both had breast cancer, with official word coming from their doctors a few days apart.
A lump leads to a mammogram
It all seemed so routine when Lauren and Leanne went in for their mammograms. They were young, healthy women in their 30s. The screening felt more like a precaution than anything else.
"I never had any problems. There was no family history. This was my first mammogram, and I wasn't even worried," Leanne says.
Leanne's doctor had found a lump during her annual exam and ordered additional testing. "The possibility that it was going to be cancer didn't even dawn on me and maybe that was naïve," Leanne says.
Lauren had similar feelings going in for her mammogram. She has discovered a small lump in her breast when she was pregnant. At the time, everything checked out fine.
"When I found my own lump years later, I was able to go in and have an ultrasound and then my first mammogram," Lauren says. "It was one of those on the fence, but we decided to go ahead and biopsy – and thankfully we did."
Breaking the news to each other
The results of Lauren's biopsy came back on a Tuesday. She remembers the day clearly, but the conversation with her doctor's office quickly became a blur.
"I just broke down," Lauren says. "I remember running upstairs to my husband, and I just fell to the floor. It was so shocking, and I just cried the rest of that day."
Lauren then faced another hurdle in sharing the news with her life-long friend and confidant. Leanne had just gone in for her biopsy, and Lauren knew she wouldn't be getting her results for a few more days.
"I didn't tell her. She asked a little bit, but I didn't want to scare her," Lauren says. "I knew Leanne would probably find out Friday based on my timetable."
Lauren sent a friendly text that Friday morning to let her best friend know she was thinking about her and asked her to call when the results came back.
"She called me immediately," Lauren says.
What's your diagnosis? What's going on?
You go first!
I have cancer.
"When she said she had cancer, my heart sank," Leanne says. "You'd never wish that on anyone, but it was a relief that someone I knew so well and was so close to and loved would be going through this with me, and that we'd be together."
"It was this crazy experience of we both have it, but I was like, I've already met with my surgical oncologist and medical oncologist," Lauren says. "If you need some numbers, I've got you."
Supporting each other through treatment
Treatment planning for Leanne and Lauren at The Christ Hospital started immediately. "It was super-fast. It was a whirlwind," Leanne says. "You do all the tests and scans to see if it's spread and what the treatment plan is going to be."
"It's crazy how fast they're able to move," Lauren says. "I was in a chemo chair in two weeks and two days from diagnosis."
Lauren had HER2-positive breast cancer, while Leanne had triple-negative breast cancer, each in varying stages. Their treatments and schedules were tailored to them, but they often found themselves at the infusion clinic together.
"Our goals were to push as hard as we could to get the tumors to shrink and get them to a point where they could have more limited surgery and increase their chances of cure," says
Slobodan Stanisic, MD, medical oncologist with The Christ Hospital Physicians – Hematology & Oncology.
"The treatment was tough on them, both the physical and emotional stresses that goes with a new diagnosis like this. They were able to buttress each other and help each other through the process," Dr. Stanisic says.
"Going through chemo is a very up and down emotional process," Leanne says. "There were days I was miserable, and Lauren was having an up moment and was able to boost me. And I'm sure there were days when it was the other way around."
"It was uninterrupted time that we hadn't had together in years," Lauren says. "It was our chance to reconnect. You go in there scared to death, and you see your best friend walk in right after. It's like a breath of fresh air in the worst possible scenario."
Together, they were also able to forge new friendships with The Christ Hospital staff and other patients going through treatments alongside them.
"Typically, the patients are a lot older, so we're two young people in there causing a ruckus," Leanne says with a smile. "They said having energy and people who were friends brought some joy to the center."
"We're talking to each other, and people are talking to us," Lauren says. "Because you can't bring guests in, it can be really quiet. So having us play backgammon or carry on about stories from when we were in elementary school or high school – other people feed off that and join our conversation. They know we're open to talk."
"We got really close with the all the nurses. They are literally angels," Lauren says. "Dr. Stanisic tells it to you straight but in a way that's really nurturing. He spends time with you and is really gentle, but he's also really smart."
"They are both brave young ladies," Dr. Stanisic says. "They both came at it with a realistic attitude and an attitude that we're willing to do what we need to do to make this better, realizing the next three to six months is going to be really hard, but with the goal that next year and the next six months and the next many years will be good."
Chemo is done – ring that bell!
Ringing the bell is one of the most visible moments in a patient's cancer treatment journey. It's a celebration of the last chemotherapy treatment. For Lauren and Leanne, it brought mixed emotions.
"I felt a sense of relief, but then it's kind of weird because you have more steps after that," Lauren says. "So we talked about, should we ring the bell?"
Lauren would be the first to complete chemo, and Leanne was insistent. "She was like, you're ringing the bell," Lauren recalls. "You need to stop and celebrate each step and getting through chemo was the hardest step."
The ringing of the bell wasn't the only celebration that day. When Lauren went home, she discovered dozens of friends and family holding up signs in her cul-de-sac to cheer her on to recovery.
One month later, the celebration was for Leanne. "I would not be who I am without Lauren in my life."
Recovering together – with a new outlook on living
Weeks of treatment – chemotherapy and surgery – would go by with Lauren and Leanne supporting each other through it all. They each were about to hear from their doctors again – conversations that would go very differently from the days they were diagnosed.
Samples from their surgeries were carefully examined by a pathologist.
"No evidence of disease," Dr. Stanisic says. "They did not find any residual tumor left behind, meaning the initial treatment chemotherapy and targeted therapy had done their jobs. The longer that continues, the more likely we are to have a good chance of cure."
"I read it on the App," Leanne says. "I'm texting Lauren and ask, does this mean no evidence of disease? Does this mean it's gone? Yep, that's it."
"I would find myself going back to the pathology report even weeks later and rechecking it," Leanne says. "Yes, it does say 'complete pathological response.' It's almost surreal. You go through this terrible thing, and all of a sudden it's like, ok. It's done."
Lauren and Leanne were both cancer free. They celebrated with a lake trip, and both were gifted with vacations from the Karen Wellington Foundation.
With the support of each other and their circle of friends and family, they have a new take on living. "No day is guaranteed," Lauren says. "Let's go do that thing we've been putting off."
"You always hear that you can't go back to who you were before, but we're trying to be better than before," Leanne says.
They also remain grateful to their care team at The Christ Hospital – and having treatment options nearby at the Anderson Outpatient Center.
"You read about people who have to drive hours and hours to get high levels of care, and we're just really lucky be able to do it a mile from our houses and to have that same level of care you'd expect anywhere else," Leanne says.
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Click here to learn more about breast cancer and treatment options at The Christ Hospital Health Network.