As she trudges along the bike path with her two dogs, Jan Ledinsky is grateful for every step she takes.
There was a time that the two-time cancer survivor didn’t know how much longer the path before her would unwind.
More than three decades ago, at age 32, the Spring Lake, Michigan, woman battled breast cancer.
“That was a complete shock,” Ledinsky said. “Nobody thought it was cancer.”
The just-in-case biopsy returned regrettable results. Cancer cells loomed large. She needed a radical mastectomy and a year of chemotherapy.
And after that, visits to the oncologist every six months. All was well health-wise, but she suffered other pain. In 2006, her husband died in a car crash. Eight months later, her mother-in-law died. In 2008, her mom fell, and died three days later.
Fast forward to April of last year.
“I had terrible pain around my abdomen,” said the retired Grand Haven Public Schools special education teacher. “I took myself to North Ottawa Community Hospital in the middle of the night.”
As part of the emergency room screening, she had a chest x-ray.
“They were thinking I might have pneumonia,” she said. “They did a CT scan that showed a nodule on my left lung. ”
“The doctors couldn’t figure out what it was,” Ledinsky recalled. “They figured it couldn’t be a metastasis because, after 31 years, that’s unheard of. They thought it was most likely a new cancer, a cancer that women who don’t smoke get. I went through a PET scan and I lit it up pretty good there.”
Ledinsky consulted with her Spectrum Health primary care physician, Thomas Alguire, MD, and oncologist Lawrence Pawl, MD. In early May, she heard the news that crushed her heart for the second time—she likely had cancer again.
“I kept swallowing and I couldn’t breathe,” she recalled. “I couldn’t even get my breath.”
On May 12, Dr. Pawl referred Ledinsky to the Spectrum Health Cancer Center’s multi-specialty lung mass and cancer program.
Two days later, she had her gall bladder removed. The week after that, she met thoracic surgeon Jeremiah Hayanga, MD. After lung and breathing tests, she underwent surgery on May 28.
“They removed the lower lobe of my left lung,” she said. “It was frightening, but I was in good hands, surrounded by my faith in God, faith in my medical team, and the incredible love, care and support of my family. I thought there was a reason that the miracle of the ER room happened. Had that not happened (the chest scan), something could have gotten much worse.”
A team approach
Ledinsky said she learned later that the multi-disciplinary team members meet weekly to discuss patient care.
According to Judy Smith, MD, chief of oncology at Spectrum Health, oncologists, surgeons, radiologists, pulmonologists, pathologists, radiation doctors, nurse navigators, lung nurses, oncology rehab specialists and other supportive care team members all meet to discuss individual patients.
“They all sit around the table and look at all the (medical) information they can find on you, past and present,” Ledinsky said. “As they do that, there’s a screen in the room with your picture on it. You’re not a disease, you’re not a surgery, you’re not a number, you’re a person and your person is represented on that team with that photograph. It made me cry.”
She characterized the care she received as being “just over the moon.” And her family was there every step of the way, surrounding her with their love, care and support.
Ledinsky returned to her Spring Lake, Michigan, home on June 2 where visiting nurses continued to assist her during recovery.
A week later, she got the pathology report.
Cancer strikes twice
“It was metastasis of the breast cancer I had in 1983,” she said, still almost in disbelief. “I had a little sucker of a cell that was touring my body all that time. The doctor told me that was so rare that they didn’t have any protocol of what to do with me. There were no studies to look back on.”
She said her surgeon expressed interest in writing her case up for a medical journal.
Ledinsky said she feels grateful that she didn’t need to go through chemotherapy or radiation because no lymph nodes were involved.
Dr. Pawl said Ledinsky’s prognosis is promising.
“Janice is doing great and has a great attitude,” Dr. Pawl said. “It is very unusual for someone’s cancer to return after that amount of time.”
Perhaps it’s rather fitting that Ledinsky celebrates her moments in an everything-old-is-new-again fashion.
After each medical appointment or scan, she stops at an antique store and treats herself to a new-to-her item. It’s a reward she learned as a kid. After a doctor appointment or shot growing up in Muskegon, her mom would take her to Benson’s drug store and let her pick out a comic book.
Throughout her cancer ordeal, she filled her home with antiques—a dining room table, chairs of different colors, kitchen utensils, old egg beaters, a storage unit.
A fresh start
She recently redid her entire dining room with her finds, a fresh start, with familiar things. Kind of like her life now. Her October scan came back clear. She’s resuming life, blending the old with the new.
The fear is replaced with appreciation, for yesterday, today and tomorrow.
Sitting in her den with the scent of freshly-baked cookies wafting through the air, Squirt, her Yorkshire terrier, jumps up on the couch and snuggles in next to her. Amber, a kind-eyed dog that belonged to Ledinsky’s mom before she died, rests near her feet.
After the death of her husband, they are Ledinsky’s family now.
“Mine was a hormone-based cancer, which is why Dale and I didn’t have children,” she said. “That’s what I wanted more than anything in the world, to be a mom.”
Amber and Squirt treat her like one. And the feeling appears reciprocal. Ledinsky grabs a sealed plastic container and gives each dog a treat.
On the coffee table rest several notebooks full of genealogy information she has collected about her dad’s side of the family. Her great-grandfather, she has learned, was a lumberman who was killed in 1883 trying to save a co-worker.
Outside, beyond the bird feeders, snow clings to the trees lining her backyard. Squirt ventures toward the sliding glass door and peers outside.
Ledinsky grabs a bright pink doggy coat and puts it on Squirt. She snaps leashes on both dogs and heads out the front door.
The three cross Fruitport Road, walk through a snow bank and head west on the bike path amid towering pines.
Ledinsky walks with a brisk gait. The dogs keep stride until Amber shoves her nose into a snow pile and, as if her snout were a backhoe, starts digging.
Ledinsky recalls the time Amber found a fish in the back yard—a large fish, in a yard that backs up to heavily wooded acreage. She figures a seagull or eagle must have dropped it. Amber burrowed through deep snow for the catch.
The memory reminds her that life is full of surprises. Some happy, some sad.
Much like her own life. She ventured toward death, twice, but both times, circled back to life.
A decorative sign hanging in her redecorated kitchen, with visuals of the past and hope for the future, sums up Ledinsky’s journey.
The words remind her of a poem she once saw hanging on the wall inside one of the medical clinics she visited, written by a breast cancer patient.
The title? “Be Alive.”
“The poem keeps things in perspective,” she said. “No matter what you’re going through, there’s so much good all around you. Remember to open your eyes and say thank you. …It talks about enjoying a sunset, hearing children laugh, just these little phrases of all these beautiful things you take for granted every day of your life.”
Ledinsky hopes her story helps others.
“My hope is it will help someone see all the good that exists in the middle of the terror, fright and pain,” she said. “Try to focus on it, and on all those fighting with and for you.”