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Two-time breast cancer survivor makes every opportunity count

Lisa Covington

Her face has adorned print and television ads, billboards and the sides of tractor trailers. But she’s not a Hollywood celebrity.

She’s helped raise hundreds of thousands of dollars for breast cancer research. But she’s not wealthy.

She traveled to Washington, D.C., to successfully lobby for breast cancer legislation. But she’s not a political insider.

Yet these remarkable accomplishments can be attributed to something Lisa Covington most certainly is: one incredibly determined breast cancer survivor.

I came to The University of Kansas Cancer Center to be with a doctor who specializes in breast cancer. I knew that when I came here, the oncologists would compare notes and discuss my treatment, and that with all of them working against my cancer, I would be okay. – Lisa Covington

Until 2001, Lisa lived a fairly ordinary life. But that Easter she found a lump in her breast. In May, doctors told her she had stage 2 ductal carcinoma. She was just 31.

Her mastectomy was followed by chemotherapy, then anti-estrogen drugs. “I figured it was all very normal, pretty standard,” Lisa said of her treatment. “I would get rid of the cancer and be done with it, and I’d get back to normal as soon as I could.”

Unfortunately, cancer had other plans.

In 2003, Lisa learned her breast cancer had metastasized to her lungs and bone; because it had moved to a major organ, her breast cancer was stage 4. A doctor told her husband she had 12 months to live. Maybe less.

Lisa had two little boys. A supportive, loving family. And an iron resolve. She decided she wouldn’t just wait and hope for a cure.

She would fight like mad for one.

Over the next two years, Lisa participated in seven clinical trials, constantly seeking the next new drug that would keep her cancer at bay. She had a hysterectomy when doctors found cancer in her ovaries. In the middle of 15 long months of chemotherapy, Lisa decided to come to The University of Kansas Cancer Center to be under the care of Priyanka Sharma, MD.

“I came to The University of Kansas Cancer Center to be with a doctor who specializes in breast cancer,” Lisa said. “I was with a great oncologist, but I wanted someone who specialized in advanced stage breast cancer. I knew that when I came here, the oncologists would compare notes and discuss my treatment, and that with all of them working against my cancer, I would be okay.”

Severely ill and weakened from chemotherapy, Lisa had only a third of her lung capacity, and couldn’t walk without losing her breath. Her nurses at the cancer center immediately put her on oxygen, and her team of doctors began a new course of treatment to save her life.

“When I got here, the nurses catered to my every need. Whatever I needed, they took care of me,” she said. “The nursing staff is incredible – I still have several nurses here who have been with me since 2003. “

Lisa began viewing her doctors and nurses as part of her life-saving team. She got more involved with her care, doing her own research, educating herself and asking lots of questions. Gradually, her health began to improve. Her nurses started calling Lisa their “little miracle.”

The woman who had once been given a year to live decided to make every day matter.

Lisa started volunteering for “anything with a pink ribbon on it,” she said. Singing at the American Cancer Society’s Relay for Life events and at a Chiefs football game during National Breast Cancer Awareness Month. Serving as committee chair for the Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure. She even convinced her former employer to paint four company trucks pink.

She tirelessly recruited friends, family, neighbors, co-workers, even her nurses to walk, run and donate for the cure. Lisa was so active, so vocal and so visible that in 2008 she was selected to be one of the faces for the Race for the Cure’s national “I am the cure” campaign.

In October 2009, she traveled to Washington, D.C., to lobby for the passage of two pieces of legislation related to earlier detection and prevention of breast cancer. Both acts passed.

While she campaigns for a cure, Lisa is all too aware of what she calls the cancer clock. Every two years her cancer has figured out a way to sneak around the hormone therapy drug she’s on and form new tumors. So she has to trust a new medication will be available when she needs it. Dr. Sharma recently informed Lisa that there already are newer drugs available when she needs them; Lisa holds fiercely to that reassurance.

Newer drugs buy her time – “more years to wait until they find the cure,” she said. She knows it will be a lifelong fight. “I have to retrain my mind to think one day at a time. I can’t think about what will happen to me in a month, a year. Because for me, it’s not a question of if the cancer will come back. It’s when.”

In the meantime, Lisa looks at each day as a present. “I know you only get one life, and I don’t know if I’ll get tomorrow,” she said. “Every day is a gift to me.”

She’d like to do more on a national level. At a breast cancer event in May, Lisa met Susan Komen’s sister, Nancy Brinker, and “when she spoke I just bawled,” Lisa said. “Nancy’s done so many amazing things. She started the whole thing. Everything with a pink ribbon is because of her.”

Lisa dreams of meeting with well-respected public figures like Diana Sawyer. Or Oprah. Or even fellow breast cancer survivor Melissa Etheridge. She’d tell them her story. Urge strong, well-respected women like them to champion the search for a cure. And who knows, Lisa may just do it.

After all she’s overcome, no one should doubt her resolve.

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