MINNEAPOLIS (KMSP) - Breast cancer is a cruel, and in many cases chronic disease. Yet it's the illness that is bringing one south Minneapolis community closer together.
Michele Slack and Laura Stegenga are both 47 years old. Slack is a 13-year USPS letter carrier. Stegenga is a Linden Hills wife and mother of two.
Aside from a shared age and gender, they share a plight in common: they've both been handed stage four breast cancer diagnoses.
"My battle started seven years ago and I was just diagnosed with retinal cancer in January, which metastasized from my breast cancer," Slack said. "Odds are, it'll be back again at another point. There aren't too many people that haven't been impacted in some level by cancer."
So when Michele learned Laura, one of the people on her route, joined the sea of women who battle the disease, she paid her a visit.
"She just said she felt hopeless," Michele said. "It just sort of ate at me, because hope and positive thinking in my belief has a lot to do with healing and overcoming a serious illness."
Michele then took it upon herself to plant a garden of love she calls "Hearts of Hope" along Laura's front yard.
"I said I was feeling hopeless because it's chronic, they tell me they can't get rid of the cancer," Stegenga said. "That it will be with me. That even if they do get rid of the cancer in my body at this time that it more than likely will come back and I will have to deal with it for my life, however long that is."
Michele signed, sealed and delivered 101 deep red, heard-shaped balloons to Laura's home while she sought chemo treatment and her daughters were at school.
"It was a surprise for everyone," Michele said, smiling.
Earlier this summer, after Laura's chiropractor realized her sore back wasn't improving, they decided to take x-rays of the affected area.
"And [they] found some lesions on my spine and realized it was metastasized cancer from somewhere else in my body. So I went to the breast center, had several tests to find out where the cancer was coming from and ended up finding out it was breast cancer and that it had metastasized."
The late diagnosis wasn't a result of skipped mammograms either.
"I really feel this is a campaign for me," she said. "There are many blessings in actually getting cancer because you realize how much you're loved and cared for, but that there's a real need out there that you don't see or know about until you're diagnosed."
Laura now plans to dedicate the rest of her life to changing the way breast cancer is detected.
"My hope is if I had been treated differently maybe I would've known sooner and maybe I wouldn't have stage four breast cancer," she said. "I don't want another woman in Minneapolis or anywhere to have to have this happen to them."
Both Laura and Michele realize they're now in the life-long fight together.
Michele's gesture came with approximately $2,000 in donations she collected along her route from friends, neighbors and strangers.
"I know how much it means to have the visual aspect of the support that this many people are there for you and are willing to help in any way," she said. "You try to be strong for everyone and inside you're battling with your own emotions. I wish more people would do it for people that are going through difficult times."
The effort, she says, is just one small way she can prove to Laura that if nothing else, love will carry her through.
About 1 in 8 U.S. women (about 12 percent) will develop invasive breast cancer over the course of her lifetime, according to breastcancer.org, a non-profit dedicated to providing the latest statistics of the disease.
In 2017, an estimated 252,710 new cases of invasive breast cancer are expected to be diagnosed in women living in the U.S., along with 63,410 new cases of non-invasive breast cancer.
About 2,470 new cases of invasive breast cancer are expected to be diagnosed in men in 2017. A man's lifetime risk of breast cancer is about 1 in 1,000.
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