Friday, August 19, 2011

The Woman Who Inspired An Entire Community

Well, the San Diego Chargers lost a fan today. No, she wasn’t upset over the lockout, nor did she storm off over some slight–-real or perceived. In fact it wasn’t about the Chargers at all. She left us, too. Around 4.00 this afternoon, my cousin Leslie lost her years-long battle with melanoma.

Sidenote: Go to your dermatologist. Get checked. Use sunscreen.

Leslie was a lifelong Chargers fan. Her very first gift to her grandson was a Chargers outfit. Every year she put a huge inflatable Charger figure in her lawn for the duration of the season. And every Sunday during football season she would gather around the TV with her family and cheer the Chargers on to (hopefully) victory. And among her last conversations as she lay in the hospital this week barely able to communicate at all, she talked Charger football with her son and daughter.

But beyond that, Leslie inspired an entire town. Shortly after she began this battle, in January 2008, she started a blog. At first it was just to keep far-flung friends and family updated on how her treatments were going and when surgeries and appointments were scheduled, but it grew into something much more. Over the last few years, she developed a strong following because of her infectious optimism, faith and enthusiasm for life. She was a teacher’s aide and while she drew a great deal of strength from her kindergarten classes, her students, co-workers, family and friends all drew an incredible amount of inspiration from her as well.

Leslie’s cancer spread from skin cancer into dozens of brain tumors. She went through Gamma Knife surgery three times, brain surgery once (without painkillers, because her body couldn’t tolerate them), dozens if not hundreds of chemo and radiation treatments, struggled with debilitating side effects from medications and treatments, and lost then regrew her beautiful, long blonde hair several times. But even though she suffered, she spoke on her blog about her wonderful husband’s chivalry, her month-long birthday celebrations, her sister’s and son’s travels, her grandson, who was the light of her life, and of course the Chargers. And in every photo, she was beaming with a bright smile and a light in her eyes (and usually wearing a Charger jersey).

When a few friends organized a craft fair fundraiser to help with medical costs a couple of weeks ago, hundreds of people in the community showed up. The event even made it into the local newspaper as one of the lead stories (it’s a small town, after all). Each person who attended the event had been touched in some way by Leslie’s generosity and spirit.

It was Leslie’s optimism, faith and positive outlook that allowed her to beat cancer twice. But it came back for her a third time. Last month she was airlifted to San Diego because she had an apricot-sized brain tumor that was bleeding. A few days later she had Gamma Knife surgery on her smaller tumors followed the next day with brain surgery for the larger tumor. Within a few days she was back on her blog posting photos of her grandson, laughing, and giving words of encouragement to people who were going through struggles that might have paled in comparison to her own. But it wouldn’t last, and on its third try, melanoma finally got her.

Did I mention? Go to your dermatologist. Get checked. Use sunscreen.

My story doesn’t really have a point, except to share with you the story of an incredibly inspiring woman whom I was privileged to be related to. You can bet that, even though he may not remember much about her, Leslie’s grandson will grow up knowing what a special woman his grandmother was. And though the Chargers may have lost a fan today, our entire community lost a beaming light, a good friend, and an inspiration.


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