Editor's note: This story has been updated to accurately reflect the spelling of two names: Maryann Yerkovich and Sharon Petri. Canton Patch regrets the errors.
Even as Cynde Lebert says breast cancer may be "the best thing that ever happened to me" she is aware of the effect her words will have and quickly follows the remark with the explanation.
"I know it sounds shocking, but it's true," she said, sitting at a small table at one of Canton's three Tim Horton's. She allows one of her easy, bright smiles. Experiencing cancer has made her more compassionate, for one thing. But it also led to a new career and fulfilling job.
Lebert is the type of person who is easy to get to know. Frank and practical in conversation — which she laces with a gentle humor — Lebert exudes a senior soccer mom warmth and looks years younger than her age, 59. She's that woman in a crowd strangers will approach to ask directions.
Those strangers might easily guess she's experienced breast cancer. It only takes a glance at her outfit and accessories — a pink-and-white polka-dotted sweater, with a matching survivor's ribbon pin, a second ribbon, this one tiny and silver, dangles among the charms on her necklace. Near her elbow, a black and pink handbag, its straps fashioned in the shape of the omnipresent pink ribbon. Her hair is a shade of dark strawberry blonde verging on brown. On her right wrist, a playful bling-y wristwatch has a pink wristband; on her left, a simple pink band bearing the word which means so much to Cynde Lebert: Survivor.
"I never cared for the color pink," she said. "Now, I'm drawn to it."
One of her friends calls the effect "pink nausea" a phrase Lebert delivers with a big grin before she bursts out laughing. She laughs a lot these days.
Breast cancer is far from the first shock of Lebert's life and perhaps why she's so matter-of-fact in talking about the disease. Her childhood and early adulthood are punctuated with jolts, starting with the death of her only sibling, a brother two years younger who'd suffered from a heart ailment, when she was just 6 years old. Her parents' jobs meant she lived at her grandparents home on Detroit's east side during the week and spent weekends with her mom and dad at the family's Warren home — a manageable arrangement, until her father's gambling addiction tore the family apart. She and her mother returned to her
'The saddest thing I've ever seen'
"My best friend died from breast cancer in 1992 and she didn't have to," said Canton resident and breast cancer survivor Cynde Lebert. Maryann Yerkovich, who died in 1992, had been a childhood friend, but they lost touch, then reconnected as young adults, becoming best friends, even standing up in one another's weddings. When Maryann learned she had cancer, she opted for to have the affected breast removed, Lebert said.
"But she never followed up with her appointments. She never had chemo," Lebert said, her blue eyes clouding with memories. "Sometimes I think, 'I'm so mad at you! — if you'd just done what you were supposed to do, you'd still be here.'"
"Her six sisters wore pink gloves as they were carrying her casket. It was the saddest thing I'd ever seen."
grandparents Detroit home; Cynde attended the same school her mother had, run by Saint Cyril and Methodius Slovak Catholic Church. Later, her mother remarried "a wonderful man" who brought his four children, all younger than Cynde, for a blended family.
She attended Macomb Community College but didn't finish, instead opting to pursue a retail career, which included a stint at Hudson's, helping open a Federal's Department Store and working at the then-Kresge headquarters. Later, she worked in accounting and sales in the automotive manufacturing industry, also experiencing the roller-coaster employment that goes along with it.
Along the way, she married, then divorced her husband after he became abusive. A few years later, she married Chuck Lebert. The couple moved to Canton 16 years ago.
Chuck Lebert and his sister, Cheryl Boulter, stayed by Cynde's side and helped her deal with breast cancer, which included two surgeries in 2007, followed by radiation and chemotherapy though the St. Joseph Mercy Health System in Ann Arbor.
Lebert and her family had every reason to be frightened.
Regular exams help
Lebert had been rigorous about doing her own monthly self exams and going in for annual checkups, having lost her best friend to the disease in 1992. In 2006, the medical report was fine. In February, 2007, one week after a routine mammogram, Lebert was summoned back for repeat exams at St. Joseph's Ellen Thompson Women's Health Center followed days later by surgeries for "invasive ductal carcinoma" — words that left her feeling so overwhelmed and scared.
"Nurse navigator Sharon Petri ... took both my arms and said, 'You will get through this. And you won't be alone," Lebert said, her eyes tearing up while recalling that moment.
Later, a surgeon removed the half-inch tumor in her left breast with a lumpectomy, meaning most of her breast was spared. Though she initially resisted the notion of chemotherapy, Lebert changed her mind after being told that the process would be something of an insurance policy against a reoccurrence — but that she would lose her hair.
Today, Lebert keeps a photo of herself without hair with her brother-in-law John Boulter, who shaved his head as a sign of solidarity. Like Petrie, Lebert wants to pass along a sense that they will "get through it," just as she did.
Lebert continues to be puzzled and outspoken when she encounters women who hesitate to get mammograms or any kind of heath care. After one 48-year-old friend confided that she'd never gotten the test, Lebert didn't hold back. She insisted the other woman schedule a test and shared her relief when "everything came out OK," Lebert recalled with a grin and a look that suggests her friends get regular encouragement to follow up. Sure, Lebert said, mammograms can hurt, but "that's a good hurt."
A new, more-aware life
In 2009, as she was recovering from more than 30 radiation treatments and four chemo sessions, Lebert was laid off for the third time in her automotive industry career. The timing allowed her to continue recovery. But she also dealt with her own father's cancer and subsequent death out of state. And she helped her stepfather as he survived a bout with melanoma (a form of skin cancer) in one of his eyes. She decided to change careers but wasn't sure what was next. Survivors, she said, often don't think beyond treatment and recovery. Resuming a routine life can seem scary all of sudden, because there's no guarantee of what will happen next.
"Walking out that door the last time was very tough," she said, despite the certificates of accomplishment signed by clinic staffers that made her feel as if she'd graduated. The battle isn't completely over. Lebert continues to take a post-treatment drug, Tamoxifen, intended to reduce the chance of that the breast cancer will reoccur. She'll continue taking it for another year.
Lebert began volunteering to help with breast cancer fundraisers and awareness events. She walked to raise money and spoke to groups. She is passionate about cancer education and optimistic about finding a cure. Having cancer and watching its effects on her father and stepfather have made her more compassionate, she said.
A casual remark to one of the nurses during a follow-up visit at the Women's Health Center led to a job interview there and getting hired as an administrative assistant for the new cancer specialty clinic. Lebert is enthusiastic about her new job, but keeps that photo of her baldheaded self nearby.
Sometimes she's called upon to comfort a newly diagnosed woman.
"I walk in and I hand her the picture and I say, 'This was me four years ago. And look at me now. My hair's grown back.' You'll be fine. You're alive and that's the most important thing," she said, her voice catching. "That's how I look at it."