At first glance, the box beside her bed looks like an ordinary decoration. Leslie Freeman first saw it while shopping with a friend. The message etched on top, "Never, Never, Never Give Up," moved her to tears as she revealed the news that she was about to embark on the fiercest battle of her life. Diagnosed with stage four throat cancer, giving up was not an option for Leslie. The box was Karen Burky's gift of hope to her friend.
Filling it with treasured photographs and, later, a lock of her hair, the box became a powerful force in Leslie's fight for her health-a constant reminder of friends and family who had blazed the trail before her, of those who cared and of her dreams for the future.
While there was never a question in Leslie's mind that she would beat her cancer, her deepest regret was not catching it sooner when treatment might have been less traumatic. It all started with a spot on her tonsils. Diagnosed as tonsillitis and then mono, her throat was inflamed for two years. "I wish that I had listened to my body," she said. After moving from Greensboro, North Carolina to Bluffton, she waited another six months before going to the doctor. "You get tied up in life and you think, 'I'll do it tomorrow,' and you just don't," she said.
Having witnessed friends and family members confront cancer, her immediate concern was not so much for herself, but for her children. "I knew that whatever happened was going to happen at home. I didn't want them to have to see it," she said.
Leslie's journey to hell began last January, but not without many angels to carry her along the way and ultimately bring her back. Upset by her doctor's recommendation to remove eight of her healthy teeth before treatment, Leslie sought a second opinion. Hearing of her plight through a mutual acquaintance, Jimmy Dodgson, who had been through treatment for a similar cancer, was willing to stick his neck out for a stranger. He not only arranged the appointment, but picked Leslie up and took her to the office of his own Savannah-based radiation oncologist. Immediately comfortable with him, Leslie chose to follow Dr. John Duttenhaver's treatment plan.
Wrapped in the love of her husband and two sons, her mom and many special friends, Leslie endured four months of intense radiation treatments, chemotherapy and surgery. The outpouring of kindness and caring was phenomenal, she said, remembering her last "real meal" (the Cowboy Ribeye at Santa Fe CafÈ) with longtime friend, Jessie Evans. "I really didn't think I was going to die. I was concerned about the quality of my life," said Leslie. "I thought, if I have friends like this and people who care for me and are willing to go through this with me, the least I could do was go through it and do the best that I can."
Today, Leslie is cancer free and busy getting her life back. A little box lives on her night table-a gift that keeps on giving. No matter the challenge, Leslie Freeman will never, never, never give up.
Hometown: Nashville, TN; grew up in Charlotte, NC Family: husband, Dick; sons, Brandon, 23 and Pearce, 13 Occupation: flooring sales When not working, find her: spending time with family and friends, reading or cooking She is inspired by: her mom. "No matter what goes on in my life, she is always there for me. She's the person who made me who I am." Life motto: "Accept life for what it is and accept people for who they are." Recommended listening: Jimmy Valvano's speech. "Anyone who has ever been touched by cancer should hear this speech." Read and/or listen at www.americanrhetoric.com/speeches/jimvalvanoespyaward.htm.