Lesley Jannis just happened to see a message on TV about breast self-exam and thought she’d try it out. For the first time, the Barrie woman checked her breasts and found a lump. That was 1994 and she was 35 years old.

Because of her family history — her mother, grandmother and four great-aunts all had died of ovarian cancer. Lesley immediately went to her doctor. Because of her young age, she was assured the lump was just a cyst and not cancer. But after three biopsies to drain the cyst, it kept returning and her doctor decided to remove it surgically. When examined, a tiny cancer was found — half a cell.

“The cancer was found very early. I was lucky,” says Lesley. Because of treatment protocols at the time, she had an additional surgery with lymph nodes removed and treated with radiation only and thought everything would be fine.

 About a year later, Lesley’s then-husband notice that a mole on her leg was changing and urged her to see a doctor. She brushed it off and waited until her regular breast cancer check-up. The doctor took one look and had her booked for surgery two days later.

 The lesion turned out to be Stage 4 malignant melanoma, the most severe form of skin cancer. Lesley was advised she had about six months to live and should make arrangements. However, she enrolled in a clinical trial for a drug that was prescribed for colon cancer at the time, as well as other trials, and survived.

 At the time, she and her doctors were aware that her family history was significant but not exactly how. Around the time that Lesley was enduring her cancer treatment ordeal, the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes were discovered. She eventually underwent genetic testing and was found to carry the BRCA2 mutation, which places her at a considerably higher risk of breast and ovarian cancer as well as melanoma.

 Since then, the mother of two has had a complete hysterectomy, had both breasts removed and reconstructed and feels safer because, with the surgeries, her chances of reoccurrence dropped from 85% to 1%.

 Eight years ago, Lesley and her boyfriend noticed a Canadian Cancer Society Relay For Life event setting up at the large track by their home in Barrie. Curious, they strolled over after dinner to see what it was about. Lesley spoke to organizers who, upon hearing her story, immediately handed her a special yellow survivor’s T-shirt and invited her to walk the Survivors’ Victory Lap.

 “I was blown away,” she says now. “To be walking along with about a thousand people cheering me on and patting me on the back. You don’t just walk the survivors’ lap, you walk 10 feet above.”

 Now 54, Lesley has volunteered ever since that Friday night in 2004. She has chaired the Relay For Life and survivors committees and has acted as unit president.

 “After your first experience at Relay, you can’t turn back,” she says. “I love giving back. We don’t save lives each day like doctors, firefighters or police officers — we are heroes in a different way. As volunteers, we raise funds for research and that saves lives.”

In 2010-11, Lesley was awarded the Relay For Life International Hero of Hope, one of only 23 recipients in the world and one of only four in Canada. International Heroes of Hope inspire other community members who have been touched by cancer. They are a testament to the progress that has been made in the fight against cancer and are changing the face of survivorship worldwide. 

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