Lea Spencer — "We can't learn from each other if we don't share"
Lea Spencer was diagnosed with acute non lymphocytic leukemia at the age of 36. Fighting for a chance to see her son, then 16, graduate from high school, and her daughter, 10, begin middle school, the Sacramento woman sought out a clinical trial at UC Davis Cancer Center.
Now in her 50s, Spencer not only has watched both her son and daughter graduate from high school and attend college, she also has welcomed four grandchildren into the family.
"I was diagnosed very late, and was not expected to recover," Spencer says. "Being part of that clinical trial was the difference between life and death for me."
As soon as she was strong enough, Spencer started giving back. She served as a volunteer member of the UC Davis Medical Center's Community Advisory Board for seven years, including one year as its chair. During her tenure, the board brought community leaders together to share their vision for the medical center and its role in the region, and played an integral role in choosing a successor to long-time hospital director Frank Loge. Spencer was also appointed to serve on the executive board of the UC Davis Center for Women's Health, worked to bring the Ronald McDonald's Children House to the medical center campus and volunteered on behalf of efforts to increase the pool of potential bone marrow donors, especially African-American donors.
When she reached the 10-year survival mark, Spencer returned to UC Davis Cancer Center to share her story of survival with the support group for women she had helped start. She admits she felt some trepidation, and wasn't sure what she could contribute after so many years.
"But when it came my turn to introduce myself, and I told the group I had been diagnosed with ANLL and was 10 years out, a young girl, maybe about 19, who was there with her mother, just welled up with tears. She had just been diagnosed with ANLL, too, and she hadn't really believed it was possible to live that long with it. I knew then why I had come," Spencer says. "We can't learn from each other if we don't share."
Spencer moved to the Bay area several years ago. She says she is grateful to be a survivor, and for every new day that she has with her husband, daughter, grandchildren and other family members. But leukemia was not her last crisis. In 2003, her son, then 29, was diagnosed with lymphoma. He died three months later.
"It's a difficult world," she says. "But life is what you make it."
Since moving away, Spencer has continued to keep abreast of news from UC Davis Cancer Center and to look for opportunities to volunteer.
"When you are as sick as I was, the place where you are cared for comes to feel like a blanket," she explains. "It's as if you're in a storm and it's very rainy and wet, you're saturated with water, shivering and cold. For me, cancer was a storm and the Cancer Center was comforting and warm, like a blanket. Well, when that storm subsides and the sun comes out, you don't throw that blanket away. You keep it.
"I've remained very faithful to the Cancer Center because I know it has made such a difference in the life of our family, and such a difference for our region.
"That's where I find the most joy, being involved in ways that allow me to contribute in meaningful ways to my community."