NORMAL, Ill. — Breanna LeMonnier and her sister, Kelsey, were making Play-Doh cookies and cupcakes at the kitchen table of their Normal home, even after their parents, Molly and Ed, excused themselves from the operation to sit beside each other on a couch a few feet away.
But Breanna, 5, was listening to her parents' conversation and adjusted her work accordingly.
At one point, she walked up to her mom, handed her Play-Doh molded into a shape and said: "I made this for you because you had cancer. I'm glad you're better."
Molly looked down and saw that the shape was a heart. They hugged. Breanna rejoined Kelsey, 2, at the kitchen table. Molly composed herself and smiled.
"They (Breanna and Kelsey) knew that Molly was sick, but we never shared the story," Ed said. "When we look at old photos, they ask, 'What happened to mom's hair?' We say, 'Mom was sick but mom is better now.'
"But we never discussed the details of treatment. It's OK that they're hearing it now."
The story that Breanna and Kelsey were overhearing in detail for the first time was that their mother was diagnosed with breast cancer at age 28, was treated and then gave birth to a healthy Breanna, then had a recurrence and was diagnosed with stage IV cancer (meaning it had spread), underwent treatment, had an amazing recovery and gave birth to a healthy Kelsey.
All by age 34.
"Before she was diagnosed with cancer, I thought it was something old people got," recalled Ed, who with Molly, shared their story as part of Breast Cancer Awareness Month that began Tuesday.
"When things get stressful, I think, 'I've gotten through cancer — twice. I can get through anything,'" said the soft-spoken Molly.
Molly, 36, and Ed, 37, have been married for 12 years. But this story begins on the night of Dec. 12, 2005.
"I didn't do breast self exams," she admitted. "I thought I was too young.
"But an angel must have been there because that night, I did it." She detected a walnut-size lump in her right breast.
"It didn't feel right," she said, so she called her obstetrician-gynecologist who did an exam and ordered an ultrasound.
When a solid mass was detected, she had a mammogram, then a biopsy. "A half-hour appointment became an all-day affair," she said.
Then she got the call from her doctor saying, "Sorry to tell you this but it's cancer."
"I broke down and cried. A year before, I saw my mom die of cancer.
"I was Cloud 9 to Ground Zero. We had been celebrating my new job (at Country Financial) and the fact that I was going to be making more money and had (health) insurance."
Ed said, "My job is to keep her safe and there's nothing I could have done to protect her from this. I couldn't go through the treatments for her, but I told her, 'Whatever you need, I'm there."
"I wanted it out as fast as possible," Molly said. She had a lumpectomy — the removal of the tumor and some of the normal tissue surrounding it.
"I thought they'd pull it out and I'll be done." But some cancer had traveled to the lymph nodes in her right arm pit. She met with an oncologist who recommended a six-month regimen of chemotherapy.
"That was devastating to me," she said. "I didn't want to lose my hair and I had just started a new job."
Every third Friday for six months, Molly went to the CommunityCancerCenter in Normal from 8:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. for chemo. Side effects included nausea, body aches, fatigue and hair loss. Ed shaved his head in support.
Weekly radiation treatments for six weeks followed. Each session lasted only a few minutes and Molly had the treatments after work.
"I had some burning on the skin in the area of the breast but, compared to chemo, this was cake."
When a PET (positron emission tomography) scan showed the cancer was gone, Molly and Ed asked when they could start a family. Doctors suggested waiting a year.
Breanna was born April 21, 2008, without complications.
The following September, Molly began to feel fatigued. "I thought nothing of it. I had a newborn," she said.
When she experienced dizzy spells and a cough, she called her oncologist, who ordered blood work and chest x-rays. Then, Molly found a lump on the right side of her neck.
It was biopsied and found to be cancerous.
"I thought I was done with cancer," she said.
The cancer also had spread to her lungs, so she was diagnosed with stage IV cancer.
Besides worrying about his wife, Ed thought of their decision to have a child and was anxious about their daughter.
"I thought I had sentenced my daughter to die," he said. "We did the gene test at the cancer center and it was determined that Molly's cancer was an anomaly. It was not genetic. I was relieved that there was not a risk that this had been passed onto Breanna."
Molly's oncologist told her she wasn't carrying the gene so, if she survived another cancer battle, she should be able to have a second child.
Molly's treatment was a pill form of chemo that she took every day for three months. She also took Herceptin that she received intravenously for three hours once a month at the cancer center. Side effects were minimal.
A PET scan in December found no signs of cancer.
"The doctors were baffled," Molly recalled. "To go from stage IV to gone in a matter of three months surprised them."
"I considered it a miracle," Ed said.
"I thought, 'I want to have another kid,'" Molly said. Doctors suggested she wait awhile.
Kelsey was born April 4, 2011.
Molly has follow-up appointments every few months with her oncologist, Dr. John Migas. She gets mammograms once a year and has experienced the progression of mammography from film, to 2-D (digital) to 3-D (tomosynthesis) mammography.
"That's how fast the technology is moving," she said. "It's crazy the difference in detail that you can see.
"More women need to take advantage of it (3-D mammography). It just takes minutes and those minutes can save your life."
Molly also continues monthly breast self exams.
"You need to know your body and how it changes," she said. "You need to be an advocate for your health.
"I'm more aware of what I eat. I drink almost no alcohol. I exercise more." She does cardio, weight lifting and yoga with Ed.
"We're teaching our girls to take care of their health. We show them a healthy lifestyle and tell them about healthy foods. They do yoga with us. They do relay (American Cancer Society Relay for Life of McLean County) with us." Molly also has been involved with Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure.
"We're trying to raise money for research," Molly said. "And we pray every day that our daughters never get cancer. I don't want my kids to go through what I went through."
"I feel good," Molly said. "I want to be cancer free forever. I want to be a grandma. I want to live life to the fullest."