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Breast Cancer Survivor Champions for a Cure

October 02, 2019

Her face has adorned print and television ads, billboards and the sides of tractor trailers. But she’s not a Hollywood celebrity.

She’s helped raise hundreds of thousands of dollars for breast cancer research. But she’s not wealthy.

She traveled to Washington, D.C., to successfully lobby for breast cancer legislation. But she’s not a political insider.

Yet these remarkable accomplishments can be attributed to something Lisa Covington most certainly is: one incredibly determined breast cancer survivor.

Until 2001, Lisa lived a fairly ordinary life. But around Easter that year, she found a lump in her breast. In May, doctors told her she had stage 2 ductal carcinoma. She was just 31.

Lisa's mastectomy was followed by chemotherapy, then anti-estrogen drugs. “I figured it was all very normal, pretty standard,” Lisa says of her treatment. “I would get rid of the cancer and be done with it, and I’d get back to normal as soon as I could.”

Unfortunately, cancer had other plans.

In 2003, Lisa learned her breast cancer had metastasized to her lungs and bone. Because it had moved to a major organ, her breast cancer was stage 4. A doctor told her husband she had 12 months to live. Maybe less.

Lisa has 2 little boys, a supportive, loving family and an iron resolve. She decided she wouldn’t just wait and hope for a cure.

She would fight like mad for one.

Over the next 2 years, Lisa participated in 7 clinical trials, constantly seeking the next new drug that would keep her cancer at bay. She had a hysterectomy when doctors found cancer in her ovaries. In the middle of 15 long months of chemotherapy, Lisa decided to come to The University of Kansas Cancer Center to be under the care of breast medical oncologist Priyanka Sharma, MD.

“I came to The University of Kansas Cancer Center to be with a doctor who specializes in breast cancer,” says Lisa. “I was with a great oncologist, but I wanted someone who specialized in advanced stage breast cancer. I knew that when I came here, the oncologists would compare notes and discuss my treatment, and that with all of them working against my cancer, I would be OK.”

Severely ill and weakened from chemotherapy, Lisa had only 1/3 of her lung capacity, and couldn’t walk without losing her breath. Her nurses at the cancer center immediately put her on oxygen, and her team of doctors began a new course of treatment to save her life.

“When I got here, the nurses catered to my every need. Whatever I needed, they took care of me,” she says. “The nursing staff is incredible – I still have several nurses here who have been with me since 2003."

Lisa began viewing her doctors and nurses as part of her lifesaving team. She got more involved with her care, doing her own research, educating herself and asking lots of questions. Gradually, her health began to improve. Her nurses started calling Lisa their “little miracle.”

The woman who had once been given a year to live decided to make every day matter.

Lisa started volunteering for “anything with a pink ribbon on it,” she notes with a smile. Singing at the American Cancer Society’s Relay for Life events and at a Chiefs football game during National Breast Cancer Awareness Month. Serving as committee chair for the Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure. She even convinced her former employer to paint 4 company trucks pink.

She tirelessly recruited friends, family, neighbors, coworkers, even her nurses to walk, run and donate for the cure. Lisa was so active, so vocal and so visible that in 2008 she was selected to be one of the faces for the Race for the Cure’s national “I am the cure” campaign.

In October 2009, she traveled to Washington, D.C., to lobby for the passage of 2 pieces of legislation related to earlier detection and prevention of breast cancer. Both acts passed.

While she campaigns for a cure, Lisa is all too aware of what she calls the cancer clock. Every 2 years, her cancer has figured out a way to sneak around the hormone therapy drug she’s on and form new tumors. So she has to trust a new medication will be available when she needs it. Dr. Sharma recently informed Lisa that there already are newer drugs available when she needs them; Lisa holds fiercely to that reassurance.

Newer drugs buy her time – “more years to wait until they find the cure,” she says. She knows it will be a lifelong fight. “I have to retrain my mind to think one day at a time. I can’t think about what will happen to me in a month, a year. Because for me, it’s not a question of if the cancer will come back. It’s when.”

In the meantime, Lisa looks at each day as a present. “I know you only get one life, and I don’t know if I’ll get tomorrow,” she says. “Every day is a gift to me.”

She’d like to do more on a national level. At a breast cancer event in May, Lisa met Susan Komen’s sister, Nancy Brinker, and “when she spoke I just bawled,” Lisa says. “Nancy’s done so many amazing things. She started the whole thing. Everything with a pink ribbon is because of her.”

Lisa dreams of meeting with well-respected public figures like Diane Sawyer. Or Oprah. Or even fellow breast cancer survivor Melissa Etheridge. She’d tell them her story. Urge strong, well-respected women like them to champion the search for a cure. And who knows, Lisa may just do it.

After all she’s overcome, no one should doubt her resolve.

KU Cancer Center physician meeting with patient prior to cancer treatment.

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The Women’s Cancer Center at The University of Kansas Cancer Center focuses on breast and gynecologic cancers, providing specialized care to women.

Our difference

This individual participated in a clinical trial of an investigational treatment. Clinical trials are different from standard medical care. As with all research studies, clinical trial participant outcomes vary. Before participating in a clinical trial, it is important to discuss the risks and benefits with your healthcare provider.

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