SEVIER COUNTY, Tenn. — A national nonprofit founded and based in East Tennessee provides support for women with stage four metastatic breast cancer.
“Leslie’s Week” understands the terminal diagnosis doesn’t mean memories have to stop. That’s why the nonprofit offers fighters and their families “a week away from breast cancer.”
For women like Amanda Medina, the vacation is a break from the everyday worry and stress of the diagnosis.
"My biggest fear is not creating enough memories,” Medina said. “We're so busy trying to just make it that we can't even afford to enjoy life the way we used to."
The 37-year-old Texas native is a mother who knows what's going to kill her. In 2018, she was diagnosed with stage four metastatic breast cancer. It came as a shock to her since she started having mammograms at 18.
Medina admits she and many others don’t understand what metastatic means. Essentially, it means cancer spreads from the breast into other parts of the body.
There is no cure for stage four metastatic breast cancer. Those diagnosed will live with it for the rest of their lives, taking treatments to hopefully extend their lives.
The terminal form of cancer takes more than it gives.
“Of course, I went through the whole process of losing my hair, my eyebrows,” Medina said. "I'm the same person, but it has really changed my life in so many ways."
That's why Sandra Gunn created "Leslie's Week."
"I wanted to do something for stage four breast cancer women where they would be able to come out of the dark and into the light,” Gunn said.
A two-time, lower-stage breast cancer survivor herself, met women in classes and treatment who left a mark on her life.
“Every single woman said, ‘what will become of my children when I'm gone? Who will ever love them like I do? I'm their mother,’ and that just tore me apart,” Gunn said.
Gunn says every summer, Leslie’s Week honors dozens of fighters and their families during a week-long vacation at DreamMore Resort. During the week, the women, caregivers and kids are all able to gather together to talk and relax.
“This is the last vacation they generally have with their children,” Gunn said. “We've lost 21 honorees since December 31, 2021. They've died."
Gunn knows the importance of not only continuing to make memories away from the medication, hospitals and treatments, but also pouring into the children, whose mothers are suffering.
“That's what it's all about,” Gunn said. “Making memories that outlast cancer for these children."
Family and friends can support those battling this diagnosis, but no one understands like fellow fighters.
"I think our normal is very different than other people's normal,” husband and caregiver James Higley said.
Higley’s wife Samantha is currently fighting stage four metastatic breast cancer. Higley said his wife is the epitome of the word “fighter.” As soon as she found out about her diagnosis in 2018, she decided to homeschool her kids so she could spend as much time with them as possible.
When she was nominated for the Leslie’s Week retreat in 2022, she and her family loaded up and headed to Sevier County from Bentonville, Arkansas.
Higley says they are forever grateful for the time they got to spend all together. They feel like their family grew.
“It's touching when you can experience life together in a normal situation with people who are going through the exact same thing,” Higley said.
While the future may be uncertain, the memories made will last a lifetime.
“In a metastatic world, our future is day to day,” Higley said.
You can choose to donate to Leslie Week here. You can also choose to sponsor and help a metastatic family.