Stories of Hope
Survivor Urges Women to Listen to their Bodies
Article date: October 15, 2001
The real risk factor for breast cancer is simply being a woman!
Massage Therapist Brings Healing to Others Facing Cancer
“My story really began in 1997 when my dear childhood friend, Donna, passed away from kidney cancer,” says LesLee Vetorino, a 52-year-old licensed massage therapist and breast cancer survivor who lives Kailua-Kona, Hawaii. “That was my first experience with losing someone very close to me from cancer.”
“At about that same time, my father was diagnosed with prostate cancer,” Vetorino says. “Fortunately, he is alive today because of his early diagnosis and excellent care. But by now, cancer had begun its insidious move into my consciousness and life,” she says. “My life got intense with cancer.”
In 1998, Vetorino began attending massage school. One day, a woman named Charlene Cousineau, then program director of the ACS’ West Hawaii unit and now director of corporate and foundation relations, gave a presentation at the school on breast cancer awareness. Her talk included the Tell-A-Friend program. Vetorino recalls listening with interest, but thinking she didn’t have any of the risk factors.
“I was healthy, I’d been a runner and a competitive tennis player,” she says. “I did all the right things to do. Of course, the real risk factor for breast cancer is simply being a woman!”
Was it Persistence or Coincidence?
Charlene — and the ACS — “kept popping up in my life,” she says. Charlene encouraged Vetorino, who had just turned 50 and had no medical insurance, to get a mammogram through the Breast and Cervical Cancer Control Program. “I thought I better have this done,” she says. “I said I would, but days became months and I still did nothing.”
Soon after Vetorino began her new career as a massage therapist she noticed changes in her body, including a freckle on her left breast, with a pink ring around it. Though she was concerned, Vetorino continued to ignore her intuition.
In the summer of 2000, she volunteered to do massage for the walkers at the Kona Relay For Life. Vetorino says, “Who should come over to me once again gently and lovingly encouraging me to get a mammogram? Charlene. I finally made an appointment for my way long overdue mammogram.”
Though there was no detectable lump, a mammogram discovered a mass — a small but aggressive stage 1 tumor, beneath the freckle.
All women with breast cancer have unique stories, says Vetorino. But, she also explains, what we have in common is the fear that gripped our souls as we sat in the doctor's office listening to words said compassionately but matter-of-factly, “I don't have good news. You have breast cancer. ”
“For me time literally stood still,” she says. “[The doctor’s] words washed over me like a gigantic tidal wave. My lovely vital world had changed in a heartbeat and I knew not what the outcome would be.
“It is hard to describe how unsafe, angry, depressed, and betrayed by my own body I felt when first diagnosed with cancer,” she says. “I was soothed by the wise words of an ancient crone, ‘when possessed by fear, say to yourself, I am a woman greatly loved and capable of great loving.’ "
Vetorino says since she wore her hair short, she didn’t feel the trauma of hair loss like many women. “I was challenged, however, with feeling totally sexless and unattractive to my husband, but he was so supportive and loving.
Reaching Out to Others Helps Healing
“Charlene and I found several silly Looney Tune baseball caps to wear and I was happy,” Vetorino says. “I was determined that cancer and being bald, hairless, and nauseous from chemotherapy would not take away my joy and laughter. I walked and worked out when I felt good, received healing massages, and even massaged others. I was determined not to be a victim!”
As a massage therapist, Vetorino encounters others who have or have had breast cancer. “As a survivor, I know their anger, fears, and depression, and feel honored to be able to help soothe and relax them and manage their emotions — to provide a positive and safe harbor for their bodies and souls,” she says.
A year later, after surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation, “I have had much time to reflect on my life after cancer,” she says. “The more I listen to my soul, the more clearly I hear the truth of other people, of animals, birds, and the universe.”