When LeeAnn Brill found a lump in her breast, she thought it couldn’t be cancer. No one in her family had ever had cancer. Still, she wanted an expert to evaluate her—just in case. So she and her husband drove for over 4 hours to the cancer center at the University of California in Irvine (UCI). LeeAnn had searched online and looked at patient reviews, and she knew she could get good care at UCI. Just in case.
While she was waiting to see the doctor, her breast started to bleed. Her new surgical oncologist, Dr. Karen Lane, rushed to help. Before anything else, Dr. Lane hugged LeeAnn and told her that everything would be fine. They would need to do a biopsy, but she was almost certain that LeeAnn had breast cancer. Then Dr. Lane got on the phone and started to “call in the troops, just like a general would do in battle,” LeeAnn said. She now calls Dr. Lane “The General.”
The diagnosis was hard. LeeAnn’s breast cancer was aggressive, stage 3C, and LeeAnn’s oncologist told her that “if we’re going to win, we need to be aggressive too.” LeeAnn had the option of doing chemo every three weeks or once a week. Once a week would give her a better chance, but it would be harder on her body. LeeAnn chose once a week.
“If you’re in a fight and you hit your opponent and they go down on the ground, you don’t want to give them the opportunity to stand up. You want to hit them when they’re down to keep them down. That’s the idea of having a shorter chemo cycle; it doesn’t give the cancer a chance to rest,” LeeAnn said.
But if the cancer didn’t get a rest from chemo, neither did LeeAnn. Or her husband.
LeeAnn and her husband, Michael, live in Henderson, Nevada, near Las Vegas. The couple first met in Philadelphia while in pharmacy school, and they’d both lived in Pennsylvania their whole lives. But they got tired of the snow and the cold, so they pulled up stakes and headed west. “People don’t realize how much natural beauty is in Southern Nevada,” LeeAnn said. “We have sunshine here 300 days a year.”
But the drive to LeeAnn’s trusted cancer team was at least four hours one way. And with California traffic, they never knew how long the drive might take. Michael never complained, but LeeAnn knew the weekly drive was wearing on him. “Can you imagine, work a 12- to 14-hour shift, coming home, and driving to California, getting there at 3 am, getting up, going to the hospital, sitting there and then driving home the next day?”
It wasn’t just the drive—the cost of cancer was crushing. Not only could LeeAnn not take a commercial flight to treatment because of her compromised immune system, but she never would have been able to afford it. “Cancer is mentally, physically, emotionally, and financially draining… over the last three years, we spent, I believe, $110,000 out of our pocket, and that’s having insurance… We had to take the money we had saved for our retirement to pay these costs.”
The costs from treatment, hotel stays, and gas were adding up. Luckily, Bob had an idea.
Bob was a faithful UCI volunteer that liked to encourage patients during their first time in the infusion room. When he heard about LeeAnn’s weekly commute, he simply told her, “You need Angel Flight.”
When LeeAnn agreed, Bob got to work coordinating with Angel Flight West. When it was time for LeeAnn’s next chemo session, a volunteer pilot met them at the Henderson Airport just a few miles from their home and flew them to treatment—zooming right over the clogged freeways on a flight that would take only 40 to 90 minutes. Angel Flight West continued to provide flights at no cost, and the pilots said it was “no big deal,” no matter how much LeeAnn tried to thank them.
“If it were not for Angel flight, I don’t think I would have been able to access that care,” she said. She and Michael have now taken 37 Angel Flights over three years of treatment.
After LeeAnn’s diagnosis in March of 2015, she began her first round of chemo. She went for 10 weeks before developing pneumonia. She was hospitalized near her home and then airlifted to UCI. She still managed to finish her last two chemo sessions. Then she had her mastectomy. Then more chemo. Then raditation—33 rounds of it. Finally, she began targeted drug therapy to prevent metastasis in her bones. She was in active treatment for over three years.
“It was not easy, but I had much love and support along the way, and I’m eternally grateful for that,” she said.
Now, LeeAnn says she’s hopeful. She still sees her doctors every six months and keeps in touch with many of the Angel Flight West pilots. She volunteers as a cancer buddy, helps raise funds for research, and gives speeches for Angel Flight West.
LeeAnn is in several online cancer groups and is committed to helping encourage other women going through breast cancer. “It’s a sisterhood, and someone extended their hand to me, and I’m forever grateful, and it’s my turn to extend my hand and help someone else. In a few years, it will be their turn. In a few years, we will kill this monster and no one will have to ever do this again. That’s my fondest wish.”
That’s our wish too, LeeAnn.Whizzco