CORBIN — By Jeff Noble / Staff Writer
When Sheila Sursa and her twin sister Leila Cromer came into the room, both flashed big smiles and gave “thumbs-up” signs.
“Life is good,” they both said.
It’s been a decade since Sheila had breast cancer surgery.
In Leila’s case, it’s been nine years.
They both enjoy needlework and crocheting. It’s a hobby they learned from their mother years ago.
For Sheila, there’s grand babies — although she added all of them are “almost grand-adults.”
And for Leila, there’s grandkids, too. Along with a passion for travel.
In fact, she and her husband just returned from a motorcycle ride out west — taking in the sights at sites in Nevada, California, Oregon and Washington.
“I’m the passenger with my husband, because somebody’s got to take the pictures,” replied Leila.
To which Sheila noted, “Leila takes the pictures so I can see ‘em!”
Yep. Life’s good.
Both have careers in medical services, and the twins have been a fixture at Baptist Health Corbin hospital for over three decades.
Sheila’s been with the hospital for 33 years, and currently works in utilization management as a nurse.
In Lelia’s case, it’s been almost 35 years. She presently works in the laboratory as a medical technologist.
A lot has happened during their time working at the hospital. That includes tremendous advances in prevention, treatment and recovery of many diseases — including breast cancer.
Both of them know that, up close and personal.
“Years ago, you had to be five years out from your diagnosis stage to be considered a survivor. Now it’s around ten years and getting longer,” said Sheila.
Leila mentioned, “Very early on, someone told me, ‘Consider yourself a survivor, from the date of your diagnosis to the present.’ People say, ‘Don’t dwell on it, just like your life.’ At first, it’s hard.”
The two sisters then joked about how one would start with a thought, with the other one finishing the sentence. It was Sheila who finished it this time.
And in this case, the conversation continued.
“Considering yourself a breast cancer survivor is hard at first. But then, your reality changes, and cancer becomes part of your reality. It’s part of your life. You’re cancer-free, but you live as being a cancer survivor, every day,” stated Sheila.
“Cancer doesn’t dictate the rest of your life. It’s in your memory. Every time you have a friend diagnosed with cancer, you re-live it with them,” Leila noted.
Sheila spoke next. “Early on, I said to myself, ‘I hope I never forget what it feels like when you hear the doctor say, ‘You have cancer.’ because the minute I forget what it feels like, you lose the ability to empathize what somebody else goes through.”
Of the twin sisters, she was the first to hear those three dreaded words — “You have cancer.”
“I had mammograms every year for several years. One day the radiologist said there are some changes in the microcalcifications. It just happened to be over the Labor Day weekend in September 2003. The Tuesday after Labor Day, I had a biopsy, and it was positive. I found that out the next day, a Wednesday. On Thursday, I had the second biopsy. That one showed suspicious cells. We proceeded with the doctors’ plans to have surgery, and that was done in October 2003. Everything went okay,” Sheila remembered.
According to the website www.mayoclinic.com, Calcifications are calcium deposits within breast tissue, and appear as white spots or flecks on a mammogram. They’re usually so small that they can’t be felt.
On a mammogram, they can appear as macrocalcifications or microcalcifications.
Macrocalcifications show up as large white dots or dashes, and are almost always non-cancerous and require no further testing or follow-up.
In Sheila’s case, microcalcifications show up as fine, white specks, similar to grains of salt. They’re usually non-cancerous, but certain patterns can be a sign of cancer.
She detected it early enough.
But the news of the biopsy still rings in her ears.
“The first night they told me the biopsy was positive, you cry. then you’re numb, and then you cry again. And I said to my husband, ‘What did I ever do so bad to deserve this?’ Ten months later, I found out why,” Sheila stated.
Leila was next to be diagnosed with breast cancer. It’s why July 23, 2004 will forever be seared in her memory.
“There were some calcifications on a mammogram, and the doctor felt they should do a biopsy. The biopsy was positive. I didn’t waste any time, and we scheduled surgery, and on August 19, 2004, I had the surgery. Everything went well,” she said.
Sheila spoke next. “I found out Leila was diagnosed 10 months after I was. Had I not been diagnosed, Leila wouldn’t have been checked, and we wouldn’t had caught Leila’s cancer when we did.”
“The old cliche is, ‘There’s a reason for everything. In God’s good time, we find out what that reason is. It was much harder for Sheila to go through it with me, than it was for her to go through it herself,” said Leila.
Fast forward to the present.
The twin sisters sit inside a conference room, talking with each other about the things they do, the places they go, and what life has to offer — now more than ever.
“There’s things I enjoy, but I really enjoy life. Whatever happens each day,” said Sheila.
The motorcycle trip out west was still fresh on Leila’s mind. She showed some pictures on her smart phone, and later, on an iPad. It all came from a vacation with her husband, Bentley.
“Yep, Bentley’s his name. Like the classic that he is,” she said, referring to the British luxury cars and sports cars.
There’s a picture of Bentley and Leila at Lassen Volcanic National Park in northern California. Behind them and the red bike is crystal-clear Lake Helen, and the powering presence of Lassen Peak. Another snow-covered mountain is shown, that of Mount Hood in Oregon, while the final picture is a serene water scene of the Pacific Ocean off the coast near Manzanita, in northwestern Oregon.
Leila then smiled and said,”Amazing what you can see in 10 days.”
Sheila’s passion is quilting, needlework and crocheting. She brought out a prize — a Baby Afghan blanket she’s working on — out of her car, and spread the blanket across the table in the hospital lobby, next to a “Think Pink” breast cancer awareness display.
As a member of the Ossoli Club of Corbin, she’s entered her work in area and regional competition.
“The Ossoli Club has a district meeting on October 26th in Monticello. I’ll show this Afghan there. I’ve entered that in competition. Club members submit pictures of arts and crafts, people at work, wildlife and other categories,” Sheila mentioned.
Her work has already gotten some rave reviews from the judges
“I made a pink ribbon Afghan once, for a raffle to raise money. The first Ahghan I submitted either won Second or Third Place. I have the ribbon at the house,” Sheila said with pride.
You learn real quick — not only do the sisters care for each other, they have each other’s back.
“We’re half of each other,” said Sheila.
“Multiples are special,” quickly added Leila.
She continued, “Our mother always said it was easier raising us, Sheila and I, because we could do everything together.”
It was Sheila’s turn now. “We’re identical, but we have different personalities. When we were children, she was the monkey and she got me in trouble,” pointing to Leila.
“Sheila’s the leader of the two of us,” said her sister.
But it got serious for a brief moment when Shiela noted, “When she was diagnosed, Leila said, ‘I just have to follow your lead’. You were the leader.”
They both faced the enemy, and they fought the good fight. And because of that, both have a renewed passion for life. For each and every day.
“You view things differently. You have a different perspective. You don’t sweat the small stuff. …The thing is, we experienced it together. But if I had my druthers, I wish she’d never had to go through it,” said Sheila.
“Life’s a journey, and it’s wonderful when you’re related to your best friend. …The meaning of life hasn’t changed. The meaning of the things in that life have changed,” Leila pointed out.
Said her sister Sheila, “It’s true.”
It was time to go home for the day. The conference room door opened up, and throughout the hospital lobby, signs, posters and reminders of just how far the battle against breast cancer has come are displayed for all to see.
It’s a reminder of just how far progress has come, in just 10 years.
“There’s so many new things that can be used to fight cancer, to diagnose cancer, and how close we are to attack cancer with specific drugs to target that area. A lot of strides have been made,” Leila Cromer said.
Sheila Sursa finished the thought.
“Which is why we have a breast cancer center in Corbin, and Relay for Life, and the Susan G. Komen Foundation. And, someday. a cure.”
For breast cancer.
And for all cancer.