A devastating diagnosis of Stage IV breast cancer at age 55 transformed Leslie’s life. She has now devoted her life to advocating for the next generation of breast cancer screening and has written about her journey in her new memoir, Probably Benign.
Tell us a little about your background.
I grew up in southern Indiana in a small farming town called Worthington. I graduated from Purdue University with a BS in Industrial Management and a BS in Computer Science. I also got my MBA from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. I began my career as a computer programmer and production supervisor at Data General in Boston and North Carolina. I then became a Global Product Manager at Carrier Air Conditioning, and then moved to England as Business Development Manager at DEK Printing Machines.
I later became a Life Coach and have done more volunteering than I could ever explain including serving at Chair of the Board of a small not-for-profit. I also held leadership positions at my church, St. Michael’s Episcopal Church in Barrington, IL. I am married to John and have three grown children: Evan, Julia, and Megan.
When did you start to think about making a change?
My career change over the last two years came about quite suddenly after a devastating diagnosis of stage IV breast cancer, in November 2017, at age 55, and only two months after an ‘all clear’ mammogram and ultrasound. Fortunately, I suffer very few side effects from the course of treatment I have been on since my diagnosis. This has enabled me to remain physically well enough to pursue my writing and advocacy work.
After much reflection and intense study, it became clear to me that I needed to follow my heart and do everything I could to advance the next generation of breast cancer screening, so that my story didn’t become anyone else’s story, and so that more women with breast cancer become survivors.
What is your next act?
I am now an author and speaker, blogger and podcast guest, doing my best to disrupt the status quo in breast cancer screening. No matter the medium, my goal is to educate women about breast density, empowering them with the knowledge and tools to help them advocate for themselves to get the breast cancer screening they deserve to have. I have also created a user-friendly website called www.mydensitymatters.org and am very active on social media.
In November of 2018, one year after my diagnosis, I walked the Camino de Santiago in order to better deal with my unknown future. The Camino is an ancient Christian pilgrimage that millions of people have walked over centuries from all over Europe to a Cathedral in northwest Spain where the bones of St. James the apostle of Jesus are housed.
While walking that 500-mile pilgrimage across northern Spain, I raised over $100,000 for a new breast cancer screening technology that finds 300-400% more breast cancers in women with dense breasts, called Molecular Breast Imaging and invented at the Mayo Clinic. In those 40 days of walking, I became at peace with my mortality and I also got clear about what I want to do with the rest of my life and how I want to do it. My decision to take this pilgrimage alone was a life changing, empowering, and pivotal event in my life.
My book, Probably Benign, begins at the trailhead of the Camino in France and ends at the Cathedral in Santiago. Using the Camino as a metaphor, I interweave my walking journey, the processing of my diagnosis and prognosis, and the progress (or lack thereof) in breast cancer screening for women with dense breasts. I often laugh that I will never be accused of plagiarism, as I don’t think anyone else has even written a book about those combination of things before! I love sharing my book with people, and ‘Zooming” with book clubs to discuss the various aspects of the book with readers.
I have a speaking program called “BE THE BOSS of Your Breast Cancer Screening.” The talk lasts about 20 minutes plus time for questions at the end. It’s great for Lunch & Learns, club and group meetings, philanthropic organizations, etc. At the end the program, participants will know about breast density and how to ask, learn, insist, and persist in order to get the breast cancer screening they deserve to have. Additionally, they will know why this may be so critically important to their health and how to share this information with their family, friends, and coworkers.
Several doctors have told me that if women don’t demand change, breast cancer screening will likely stay just like it is, inadequate for many. I took that as a challenge! Better breast cancer screening will ultimately save women’s lives.
How hard was it to take the plunge?
It was not hard for me to take the plunge. I feel called to do what I am doing now. To be honest, I did not prepare, I just started with the skills I already possessed and began writing and speaking. As time goes on, I continue to get better at my job, learning as I go. Currently I am enrolled in the National Speakers Association (NSA) Academy to improve my speaking skills and to become a member on the NSA list of national speakers.
How supportive were your family and friends?
My family and friends have been been very supportive of all that I have taken on. At first, my husband and a few friends were very concerned about my traveling alone on the Camino de Santiago. It took some convincing from me to make them feel at ease about that. Otherwise, I have felt completely supported!
What challenges are you encountering?
I am trying to change the way we do breast cancer screening in this country by teaching women to advocate for themselves so that the medical system eventually meets customer demand. This is no small task, and although I have many great people that I work with, it does feel very lonely sometimes. I am a person who likes to work in teams, so the lonely feeling is difficult for me sometimes.
With that said, a couple of great ladies, Susan LePlae Miller and Lisa Baer, are now helping me with my strategy and social media campaigns, and that has made a tremendous difference to me. I am constantly looking for additional partners in this effort. Please reach out if you are interested!
What did you learn about yourself through this process?
I have learned that I can do hard things and still keep going. We are all stronger than we know, and sometimes we just have to persevere longer than we ever thought possible. After that, success will come! I also learned I can have more influence than I ever imagined. And I am not nearly done yet!
What advice do you have for women seeking reinvention in midlife?
I came to understand while walking 500 miles over 40 days on the Camino de Santiago that the journey is the reward, so don’t forget to enjoy it. Focusing on the end takes away from getting the most out of the journey itself. The experiences you have and the people you meet along the way to finding the next act are every bit as important as where you ultimately land. Be playful about it and experiment. Keep an open mind and talk to lots of people. Additionally, there are many people out there who want to help you. Let them!
What advice do you have for those interested in pursuing your reinvention path?
If you want to write a book, consider employing a co-writer. It was invaluable for me. Also, write your book with marketing in mind right from the beginning. Know what you want to do with your book first. Marketing plans and writing should happen simultaneously. Also, know that the book market is a very crowded space, so you must have very realistic expectations!
As for taking on a huge issue as I have done with breast cancer screening, know that you are in it for the long haul and that many days you may feel that you are seeing no movement at all. Patience and a strong will to make a difference are required! Also, you must enjoy your successes both small and large along the way in order to continue to fuel yourself forward.
What resources do you recommend?
Speaking: National Speakers Association
Writing: My amazing co-writer: Stephen Copeland
Podcasts: I do a lot of podcasts. Respond to each request for guests individually, tailoring what you do to what they are looking for. A blanket response will not yield you as many podcasts.
Here are some resources that I have used:
No Rules Podcast Group – Post Anything You Want
Podcast Guest Connection
Podcast Guest Collaboration Community – Find a Guest, Be a Guest
Poddit – Podcast Guest Interviews
Successful Podcast Guests
What’s next for you?
I will keep doing this until I can’t anymore. There is so much work to do and it will take a very long time, but I won’t stop until every woman gets the breast cancer screening she deserves as standard of care. SOOO much work to do!
Connect with Leslie Ferris Yerger:
Book: Probably Benign – book purchase via my website or Amazon
My Density Matters – join the movement!