Katrina Léonce, 59, Atlanta, Georgia
By Isaiah Singleton
Celebrating seven years in remission, Katrina Léonce, 59, sat on her living room couch one weekday morning and recalled her 16-month journey battling cancer.
Léonce, a native of San Diego, California, and a longtime Atlanta resident, thought back to the day in October 2015 when she was diagnosed with Stage IV Metastatic Breast Cancer. She recalled often having problems with cystic breasts and would feel small lumps but would normally go away coinciding with her cycle. Sometimes, Léonce said, when it lasted longer, she would go see her oncologist and have the fluid removed.
However, one day when she noticed one particular cyst, she said it kept getting bigger and bigger. Léonce said she ignored the cyst because she was used to it going away and due to her busy work life and schedule, she put her health on the back burner.
The cyst had gone unchecked for about six months before going to the doctor to have it seen, according to Léonce.
At the time, Léonce was working full-time at her public relations firm called Profiles Public Relations representing some of the top athletes in the country. Currently, she is a top selling U.S. realtor in the metro Atlanta area.
“I finally thought ‘let me get to the doctor’ and she stuck the needle in it and was going to remove some fluid, but it was hard like concrete. She couldn’t even get the needle in,” she said.
There was always a part of her that knew she had cancer from the moment she saw her doctor’s face. “I didn’t cry. My first thought was, ‘What do I have to do to fix it? I’ve got kids, a wonderful family, I’m not leaving here, what do I need to do,” she said.
Fortunately, the only time she did cry was when she received a PET scan where she found out the cancer had not spread past her lymph nodes.
“That was a huge test because it determined my chances of survival,” she said. “That night after I received the news, I called to give my family that news, I cried through the whole call. I was just so happy I get to live. That was probably a month into chemo, and I probably cried for two days. It’s like I knew it, but I get to live.”
From that moment forward, she decided to live her life to the fullest. Even after being diagnosed, Léonce still traveled, worked, and ran on the treadmill when she could.
The importance of a strong support system
Through her journey, Léonce was not alone. Between her three daughters (Porsche, Paris, and Keni), family, and friends, she has a support system and never stopped fighting.
When she was diagnosed, Léonce was referred to the Susan G. Komen organization and she said the emotional support and sisterhood from other survivors she received was a lifeline.
“Having a support system was huge for my journey. My village is so large, and I have always had lots of good friends at books clubs, run clubs, and support groups,” she said. “All of the love and support from my family, friends, and support groups were amazing.”
Léonce said her daughters would call her all the time and wanted to pop by to check on her. Her now ex-husband was another pivotal person who was there every step of the way nursing, supporting, and caring for her.
“With my [ex] husband, we were kind of in a bubble because I was in treatment every day or in the days I wasn’t in treatment, I was resting because I just was tired,” she said. “He was my rock at the time, he nursed me, he wanted to be at every appointment.”
Also, to help her share her own journey with her family, friends, and beyond, Léonce created a Facebook page called KatFight where the intention was to encourage other women coping with the loss of their hair and other challenges of treatment.
KatFight became like a virtual diary where Léonce would upload videos and pictures from after her surgeries every couple of days. KatFight soon turned into a group outside of Facebook where people would participate in races together and had shirts made.
Also, to keep her thoughts positive, Léonce said she’d listen to Joel Osteen videos and gospel music to keep her mind filled with positive messages all day to drown out the negative.
Léonce said she was doing all the updates, so she didn’t have to answer calls or text messages.
“It was just inspirational, and I remember I showed up for chemo one time and my levels were so low, I needed a blood transfusion. The first thing I thought was, ‘I need a blood transfusion, what do I need to do’,” she said.
Additionally, as an inspiration from her own journey, she started a fundraising campaign to support Susan G. Komen Greater Atlanta where she donates 15% of all sold, contracted, or referrals commissions during the month of October.
Although she hasn’t done the fundraiser in two years due to the state of the real estate market during the pandemic, Léonce said she believes every dollar counts and that together, we all can make a difference in the fight against breast cancer.
Tomorrow’s not promised: Living Life to the Fullest
One thing Léonce has learned throughout the last seven years: Tomorrow isn’t promised.
She wants to focus more on doing what makes her happy and in a state of peace and she’s blessed to have made it to seven years free of cancer. Léonce underwent multiple rounds of chemotherapy, radiation, and a double mastectomy.
Léonce has always loved to travel, but after her battle, she didn’t want to hold back. She has an amazing group of women who travel together to places like Greece, Spain, Africa, and Italy.
“It was one of those things that I always thought if I get through this, I’m going to do it. It makes me appreciate life, so I created this list, I don’t want to call it a bucket list, it’s just a list of things I want to do and that’s travel,” she said. “We’ve been everywhere, and we do cabin retreats at Pigeon Forge and Jamaica. Every year we go to Martha’s Vineyard for the African American Jazz Festival, and we have at least four trips a year and I look forward to them.”
Looking back, she said her outlook on life has changed a lot since she was diagnosed seven years ago.
“After cancer, I kind of shifted back into my habit of getting busy in life again, but I told myself I need to get a grip on what I need to be doing. That lasted about a year or so, and then I looked up, and my life was busy again,” she said. “I’m at this point in my life, about to turn 60, and easing into retirement, I had to reset my mind again. It’s like did I almost forget that I wasn’t enjoying my life as much as I could because it was so busy. So now, I’m pulling back and filling my calendar with things that I love like trips and spending time with my grandbabies. My philosophy is tomorrow’s not promised, so that’s the way I live my life now, it’s like I’m doing everything I want to do today because tomorrow might not be here.”
To relax, Léonce enjoys participating in pilates about four to five times a week.
“It’s meditative. Some of the classes are slow stretching classes, my eyes are closed and I’m living in the moment because I feel like my body is getting stronger,” she said. “Sometimes I’m working out sweating, and I want to pass out and I leave the studio feeling like I’m alive. Everything about it is about how strong I feel.”
She also enjoys running in 5Ks in races such as Black Girls Run in Powder Springs Tuesdays and Thursdays as well.
One of the many changes Léonce has made in her life is giving up meat, except for fish, eight years ago.
Her daily diet consists of grains, beans, fish, salads, sweet potatoes, tuna, vegetables, and if she doesn’t meal prep, popcorn and wine.
“Doctors told me they found that women do better without the meat and its byproducts, I don’t even like the taste of chicken anymore,” she said.
Léonce stresses to women to get regular screenings and check-ups and if you feel something is wrong, go get it checked immediately.
“Early detection is so key and there were women in the chemo lab in their twenties. It used to be advised to get your mammograms at 30 or 40, but now it’s being seen in younger women. There were women there who were 20 and 70,” she said. “There’s no scale on how old you can be, you can’t be too young or too old. I let my busy life stop me from going to get that lump checked in, and it almost cost me my life. I tell people all the time, you have to do it and if you want to be my friend, you better go.”