Many will be wearing the color teal in September for Ovarian Cancer Awareness Month. For the Leo family, of East Rochester, it’s a reminder of how fragile life can be.
Georgette Leo, 61, was diagnosed with the disease in the summer of 2007. She has been cancer free for six years, but tells her story to encourage others who find themselves in the same boat.
She and husband Dennis had been volunteering with the “Sing Out” summer youth program in East Rochester when she started to feel extremely nauseous and bloated. When more symptoms persisted, Leo called her gynecologist, who suspected it was just side effects of menopause.
“I knew it wasn’t menopause but I didn’t expect cancer,” said Leo. “It wasn’t in the family and nothing was warning us.” A series of tests confirmed the worst. Leo had a 10-centimeter mass of cancer that had spread from her ovaries to her uterus and cervix. Within one week, she went in for surgery.
“My gynecologist came out crying and told my husband, ‘I think it’s bad, and she’s not going to do very well.’ My husband fell to his knees,” said Leo.
She nervously sat down at her first day of chemotherapy treatment at the Lattimore Road center next to Strong Memorial Hospital. She was surprised when a woman named Erna Lewis greeted her with a “comfort bag” filled with things like personal care items, a CD player, and head scarves.
Lewis was joined by women from her nonprofit organization, Erna’s Hope. She later passed away from ovarian cancer in 2008.
Lewis and others from Messiah Lutheran Church in Greece started the group to help comfort and educate others with the same diagnosis while encouraging other women to know the symptoms before it’s too late.
Leo was touched by these gestures, which included free refreshments for patients and their families at the lab.
“While I sat there for four hours doing chemo, my husband could eat, my daughter could eat, and there was coffee. Some days I ate and some days I wouldn’t,” said Leo.
Leo responded well to treatment and didn’t let chemo or radiation keep her from planning her daughter’s wedding. Determined to create lasting memories, Leo endured hot temperatures in her wig while decorating the reception venue. The wedding was a great success, as guests pinned teal ribbons to show their support.
Her daughter, Meredith Bonifield, says she’s thankful to have her mom around today. This month, Bonifield, who owns Luna Nail Salon in Fairport, will donate half the proceeds raised from “Teal Toes” to Erna’s Hope. The promotion is for customers who get a pedicure with teal nail polish.
“People ask you, Wow, look at your toes! And you say, I’m raising awareness for ovarian cancer,” said Bonifield, 34. “It’s my little way of giving back.”
Ovarian cancer effected about 22,000 women in the U.S. this year, according to the American Cancer Society. The Leo family’s experience has helped them connect with others like them.
One day on Facebook, a relative posted a status, “Looking forward to spending time with the family today,” and tagged family members and also accidentally tagged a woman named Michelle Denee.
Bonifield had never met Denee, but saw that she had mutual friends from East Rochester. After reading posts on her Facebook profile, Bonifield realized that Denee passed away from ovarian cancer at the age of 35.
Puzzled, she found Denee’s mother and sent her a Facebook message. To her, the accidental tag was no coincidence.
“I said I don’t know why, but I was brought to you,” said Bonifield. “It’s just really weird how this happened, and there’s just a higher power that’s bringing us together. I told her about my mom and I was doing teal toes thing to raise awareness.”
The mother immediately posted this on her page and her daughter’s page. Within days, she had a mother and daughter come to the nail salon for teal toes.
Today, the color teal is a reminder of how quickly life can be taken away. Georgette Leo knows she’s one of the lucky ones.
“I wish I knew the warning signs better,” Leo said. “I think that’s going to be what most people need to know, and if you’re a woman, you better know them.”
She said that supporting outreaches like Erna’s Hope will help more women know how to catch the symptoms early. When the news is bad, you’re not alone, she added.