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Navigating trauma: breast cancer, Harvey survivor on loss, resilience

October 3, 2018

A particular piece of wisdom has stuck with Lake Houston business owner and community leader, Leslie Raffa. It’s a piece of advice she offers for others going through traumatic situations like the ones she has endured.

“It’s OK to have a pity party, but don’t unpack and stay there,” Raffa said. “Get your emotions out, cry, get it all out, but then start the next day new and fresh. You can’t wallow in it. It’s not healthy to just stay in a really bad place.”

Raffa and her younger sister, Ashlie Gannon, had watched their mother battle through breast cancer years before either of their diagnoses.

Gannon was the first of the sisters to be diagnosed with breast cancer. She underwent a mastectomy, chemotherapy and radiation. A couple of weeks after completing her therapies, she returned for a check-up and learned that her cancer had spread.

“Two weeks after Ashlie learned that she was terminal, I was diagnosed,” Raffa said. “So, my parents had two daughters fighting (breast cancer) at the same time.”

Gannon passed away in 2016 on Mother’s Day, survived by her two young children.

Raffa had to continue treatment for her own breast cancer while mourning the loss of her younger sister.

Throughout her treatment, Raffa focused on fighting the day-to-day battles — visiting doctors, undergoing therapies — but when she reached the end of her treatment, Raffa realized she wasn’t prepared for the emotional fallout that followed.

“I always thought, ‘Get to the finish line; get to the finish line,’” Raffa said. “I thought when all of the therapies were over, then everything would be over, and it’s not — it goes beyond that. You have to reflect on what just happened and you think, ‘Wow, that was a lot and I hope it was enough.’”

Raffa’s two-and-a-half years of treatment included a bilateral mastectomy, breast reconstruction and chemotherapy. She completed her final therapy in February 2017.

Her ability to reflect on what she just went through was interrupted a few months later when Hurricane Harvey arrived. Raffa’s Waterfront Grill in Kingwood — the restaurant she runs with her husband Tony — took on five feet of floodwater.

Raffa feels that the devastation she felt from Harvey may have been compounded by how recently she finished her therapies.

“When (treatment) is all over, it’s like — ‘what happened?’ It’s almost the hardest part mentally,” Raffa said. “I was kind of in the midst of reflecting on and processing what just happened when Harvey happened. There wasn’t a huge amount of time to take a breath and go, ‘OK, life is good.’”

Over one year after Harvey, Raffa’s aims to reopen mid-October.

The journey was arduous and one that was made possible through the outpouring of support from friends and community members, Raffa said.

“It kind of looked like when you run a stick through an ant hill — there were people everywhere helping,” Raffa said. “We didn’t reach out for help; help came to us and each day it multiplied. People we hadn’t seen in years came. I had a friend who drove in from another state to help with a car full of supplies. We had people who had their own flooding and still carved out time to come help us. It was mindboggling.”

That same support shown by family and friends was something that helped Raffa during her battle against breast cancer as well.

“I think it’s important to rely on your support group — whatever that is — and I think it’s important to put those in place and use them,” Raffa said.

Raffa was surprised by her friend who landscaped her yard.

“She said that she wanted to give me flowers with roots because they last longer,” Raffa smiled. “I had someone every week send me the most exquisite cards — the 3-D ones that are all hand-done. I still have all of them.

“The support and companionship was amazing. It was nice to see the people who really cared and went out of their way to support not just me, but my family. A lot of great things happened during that time and the blessings made the horrible things more tolerable, and continue to do so.”

Raffa has another piece of advice that she is adamant about — always get annual breast screenings.

For people without the financial means necessary to afford a mammogram, Raffa pointed to programs that accommodate people in need, like The Rose Foundation, or Project Mammogram, which is funded in part through the annual In the Pink of Health Luncheon at the Airport Marriott.

Raffa will be a guest speaker at this year’s event.

“I think it’s important to promote these types of resources,” Raffa said. “This is precisely why I have agreed to assist the In the Pink campaign again this year. The fundraising efforts from this campaign are used to help men and women in our very own area.”

mfeuk@hcnonline.com

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