Leslie Riley loves the outdoors. An avid hiker in good health, she is also a wife with a blended family that includes two daughters, two sons, and a granddaughter. So, when she felt a strange twinge in the back of her leg in April of 2016, she was concerned. The twinge became especially uncomfortable when she was driving her car, an important part of her life. Her family doctor ordered an MRI to learn more.
Leslie and her husband heard the shocking news together: she had a mass in her leg and as her family doctor put it, she needed to see a ‘really good doctor.’ He recommended Dr. Gary Friedlaender, Chief of Orthopaedics and Rehabilitation at Smilow Cancer Hospital.
Dr. Friedlaender performed a biopsy, which showed that Leslie had a rare, aggressive sarcoma, a type of cancer that grows in the connective tissue -- cells that connect or support other kinds of tissue in the body. He recommended a clinical trial that would include chemotherapy and radiation therapy to shrink her tumor, followed by surgery to remove it and more chemotherapy after the surgery.
“Dr. Friedlaender was so wonderful and reassuring, treating me like a person, not a number”, said Leslie. “He didn’t alarm me. As a matter of fact, he warned me against reading too much online about the treatment. I have nothing but praise for him and for everyone at Smilow. From the researchers, the pharmacists, the technicians and the people behind the scenes, every person I came in contact with was always professional and upbeat. Everybody has his or her part and knows exactly what to do.”
Leslie’s radiation treatment started in June and ended in July. She received it in New Milford, to save her from driving to New Haven every day. In August, Dr. Friedlander was able to perform the surgery, removing the tumor in her leg. Her chemotherapy, under the direction of Dr. Hari Deshpande, Associate Professor of Medicine (Medical Oncology) at Yale Cancer Center, was completed in October of the same year.
“When I found out I would lose my hair, I cut it short and three weeks into my chemo, it started falling out,” remembered Leslie. “My daughter’s friend shaved my head for me. I didn’t mind going out with no hair, it was about the bigger picture, and it was just hair. The drugs were given to me three days in a row. My husband did all the driving, a one-and-a half hour drive each way. He’s been awesome, never negative. He’s my best friend, and such a wonderful support for me, along with my family and friends.”
“I’m finished with my cancer treatments, but some of the side effects are still with me. The bottom of my wound from the surgery was not closing up well. Its location, coupled with the radiation, caused it to take a long time to heal. I also have recently started physical therapy to help me gain my range of motion back on that side of my body. This whole process has taught me a lesson in patience.”
“Throughout this whole experience, I have tried to keep a positive attitude. I did everything I could holistically for my mental health – I meditated, used acupuncture and touch therapy, as well as Reiki. I think I did really well, but when I had bad moments, I took long walks and told myself how lucky I was that there were treatments that could take care of my cancer.”
Leslie sets high goals for herself: a week before her surgery, although feeling weak from her chemotherapy and radiation treatments, she climbed Camel’s Hump Mountain in Vermont. And since then, she has achieved another goal, climbing Bear Mountain. She is already back on her bike riding 20 miles at least four times a week.
“I feel terrific about myself when I finish those climbs. I have learned to be more patient, to let the small things go. I don’t dwell in the past or anticipate the future. I live in the present, grateful for every minute, every breath. I have started working again, am back to teaching yoga, hiking, and walking in the woods. I’m thankful for the combination of support and love that were given to me during this journey. I think of it as a river going over the rocks. It just goes in the direction it’s supposed to go, it flows on a rock here, around a corner there, discovering something new along the way.”