Photo by Mike Yoder
Leticia Cole, and her children, from left, Emery, 2, Carson, 9, and Cali, 2, ready the family for dinner recently. Cole, of Lawrence, survived a rare, aggressive form of breast cancer a year ago.
Leticia Cole is normally a private person. But she figures that if any good can come of her recent battle with cancer it will be from sharing her story with others.
Unlike many of the one in eight women diagnosed with breast cancer, Cole didn't find the disease through a mammogram. She discovered her rare form of cancer during a self-exam. So she encourages other women to listen to what their bodies are telling them.
"The main thing you have to do is notice any changes. If you notice any changes, get them checked out," said Cole, 40, an architect who lives in Lawrence with her husband and three kids. "Be in control of your own health. Know what's normal and what's not."
A little more than a year ago, Cole thought everything was normal. She had recently passed her annual well-woman checkup with flying colors.
Not long after, though, she felt discomfort and swelling in one of her breasts. She had a mammogram, but nothing was detected. An ultrasound ultimately led to the diagnosis of inflammatory breast cancer, which makes up just 1 to 5 percent of the total cases of breast cancer in the United States but has a lower survival rate than breast cancer in general.
"With breast cancer, you will usually feel a lump or see one in a scan. Inflammatory breast cancer is different in that you usually see changes on the skin or inflamed tissue," said Dr. Luke Huerter, an oncologist at Lawrence Memorial Hospital. "It can also be more aggressive. We essentially always give chemo before surgery, which isn't generally how we treat breast cancer."
For Cole, the risk factors just weren't there. She was physically active, didn't eat meat, had no significant family history of cancer. But she noticed, among other changes, that she was having trouble lying on her stomach and that one breast was larger than the other. Other symptoms of inflammatory breast cancer include redness on the skin and a texture like that of an orange peel.
After the diagnosis, Cole underwent six months of chemotherapy, a mastectomy and radiation. Despite the successful treatment, she still has a 30 to 40 percent chance of the disease coming back. That's why, unlike her doctors, she's not ready to declare herself free of cancer.
"I feel like I almost have to be doing something to fight it," she said. "It's a weird feeling to spend a year doing something to fight it and, then, nothing."
She continues to live a healthy lifestyle, in the hopes of lessening her risk of recurrence. She's also spreading the word about the rare form of cancer to help other women increase their chances of surviving it.
"I feel really lucky that I caught it so early," Cole said. "It's obviously not something very many people are going to get, but it seems like it's urgent enough that people should pay attention to their bodies."