COVINGTON - Breast cancer survivor Joan LeJeune is a fighter.
She battled her disease with a positive attitude, laughter and a determination to stay physically fit, despite the toll the cancer treatments took on her body.
She worked full-time while undergoing chemotherapy, radiation and several surgeries.
When her long, light-brown hair began falling out, she cut off her 15-inch ponytail, donated it to Locks of Love, shaved her head and bought wigs.
An avid walker and runner prior to her February 2005 cancer diagnosis, LeJeune had to cut back on exercise while she was sick, but decided she would stay as active as possible, walking regularly and lifting hefty feed bags while taking care of her horses and other animals.
She believes the physical activity made a difference in her recovery. Now, cancer free since late 2005, she is fighting once again, this time to get her body as strong as it ever was.
LeJeune has once again started entering 5K races, including the local Fuzz Run and Cheerios Challenge, though, "I haven't been setting any speed records," she said.
But on July 4, she scored a major victory, completing the 10K Peachtree Road Race in Atlanta. LeJeune ran/walked the route alongside her brother, who talked her into giving it a try. She finished near the middle of the pack of her division.
"My goal was to cross the finish line in an upright position without the paramedics with me on a stretcher," she said. Mission accomplished.
"Doing the Peachtree got me fired up about getting back into shape," said LeJeune, who prior to her cancer diagnosis had won her division in two 5K races.
Now, she's planning to add running to her daily 45-minute power walks. She'll run a 5K in Winder next month.
She still takes medication that typically includes joint pain as a side effect, but LeJeune said she has none, to the surprise of her doctor, likely because of her active lifestyle.
LeJeune has had a remarkable recovery, one that proves that cancer is not a death sentence.
"Just because you have cancer of any kind doesn't mean you have to live your life on the sidelines. It's sort of a wake up call, really. You come out of it a stronger person," she said.
After first learning that she had a golf-ball sized lump in her left breast LeJeune said she cried and cried, but then decided, "I had to do what I had to do."
A lumpectomy was not successful in removing all the cancer, so LeJeune had a mastectomy and later, reconstructive surgery. She endured six rounds of chemotherapy and nearly two months of radiation.
She got through it by finding the bright side wherever she could.
Losing her hair?
"That was a good thing. I had no bad hair days," she said, laughing.
LeJeune bought two bright red wigs for her collection and wore them to work, just to see her co-workers' reactions.
"Have fun with it. Shock people. Interject some humor into it," she advised on how to cope.
Cancer free for nearly four years, LeJeune now works part-time as a registrar at Newton Medical Center's Women's Diagnostic Center, where she is constantly in contact with women going through the same thing she did. She talks to them, listens to them and offers support however she can.
"If I can help just one person, if I can relieve their fears or reassure them ... It's a scary thing. It's probably every woman's nightmare, to have her breast cut off," she said.
Her advice to all women is to get regular mammograms.
Those who have breast cancer should get support from others who know what it's like, she said.
"If you need to talk, don't keep it all inside. The more information you have, the less afraid you're going to be," she added.
And above all, she said, "Just think positive because I think your mind is a big part of your health."
Crystal Tatum can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.