Deena Kleehamer will tell you that Oct. 20, 2017, was the best day of her life.
Two-hundred of her friends and family filled The Grand in New Albany, eating, laughing and dancing together to the music of Deena's favorite group, the Doo Wop All Stars.
Deena spent six months planning it all — a celebration of her 30th year breast cancer-free.
Deena painstakingly tended to the details: pink tablecloths, cupcakes decorated with the breast cancer ribbon, and pink vests for the band.
But the real reason that the party was so special to Deena was the people who came.
“I just wanted everybody to be there that night to celebrate with me,” she said. “Because these are the people I love.”
A few of the most important guests were former members of Deena's breast cancer support group.
These were the women who had gone through the same experience as her and who she had encouraged to keep going.
Deena asked each of them to stand on The Grand's stage. They received a standing ovation.
A FORTUITOUS VISIT
When Deena first learned that the lump in her breast was cancer, she was lucky to have a support group of her husband, Bob, friends and family that cooked her meals and presented her with gift baskets. But something was still missing.
Deena didn't know it, but she needed a stranger.
That unfamiliar person would end up being a woman who found Deena at Norton Hospital. She came to Deena carrying a breast prosthetic and exercise recommendations.
The woman was a breast cancer survivor, she told Deena, and she was there to help her through her diagnosis.
After the woman left, Deena couldn't forget the experience.
“It just made me feel so good,” she said.
The woman was a Reach to Recovery volunteer, who talks with patients in the midst of their battle, acting as a source of knowledge and a confidant.
Her visit was how Deena learned an important truth of having a serious illness: It's important to know someone who has gone through the same thing that you are experiencing.
“…It makes a difference,” said Deena. “It really does.”
After Deena met the Reach to Recovery volunteer she set a goal: When she was cancer free for one year, she would become one, too.
Deena calls her right breast her Barbie Boob. (Another lesson she learned when sick: Stay positive).
Deena originally asked her doctor if he could remove her lump instead of performing a mastectomy, but he said that he couldn't guarantee her the same chance of survival if she didn't have her affected breast removed.
That's all Deena, who had a young daughter, needed to hear. She could live without her breast, she thought, but not the fear that her family would lose her.
The thought of recurrence is never far from a cancer survivor's mind. Even now, almost 31 years later, every unexpected pain for Deena is a potential return of the disease.
But after the first year of being as cancer-free as Deena could be, she was ready to fulfill her promise and become a Reach to Recovery volunteer.
HOW TO LIVE AFTER SURVIVAL
You could go your whole life thinking that you don't know anyone with breast cancer, but if you get it, suddenly everyone has a connection to the disease.
That's what happened to Deena. She had no family members or close friends with breast cancer, but after being diagnosed, she was constantly running into people with sisters or aunts who were affected.
“It changes your life,” said Deena. “When you get the diagnosis that you have cancer, it doesn't make any difference what cancer it is…you immediately look at life differently.”
Today, Deena owns piles of pink shirts and jewelry. In October, Breast Cancer Awareness Month, she wears pink every single day.
It's more than the merchandise, though. Deena threw herself into the breast cancer world by joining Reach to Recovery. Soon, Deena was the stranger visiting patients to tell them what to expect.
Eventually, Deena started her support group, inspired by a similar one in Louisville. She contacted what was then Floyd Memorial Hospital and got one started.
At meetings, women were invited to share their experiences. Speakers were also invited to talk about a range of subjects from treatments to nutrition.
Deena would sometimes share her testimonial, always saying: “You may have to go through having breast cancer, but you don't have to go through it alone. And I'm living proof that there is life after cancer.”
Through volunteering, Deena became a beacon for newly diagnosed women. Her husband, Bob, remembers being approached by friends at the grocery store and neighbors in their yard.
Deena's group lasted 24 years.
CANCER: ROUND TWO
Bob stood next to Deena throughout her breast cancer battle, but it wasn't until recently that he could truly start to understand what she had been going through.
On May 8, just three weeks before retirement, he was diagnosed with prostate cancer.
The first thing Bob did was call two of his friends who beat the same diagnosis. Then, he started learning about all the other people in his life being affected by the diseases.
Bob had one more person to turn to, someone who had beaten cancer: His spouse.
“If anybody can get you through it, I can,” she told him.