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By: Niki Kapsambelis
September 21, 2023
There are a lot of words Leah Evert could use to describe how she feels about being diagnosed with Stage 4 breast cancer at age 36.
But perhaps the most surprising one is grateful.
“There’s something about cancer that gives you permission to embrace everything about life that is joyful. And that’s been something that’s a total mind shift for me,” said Leah, who is Director of Global Benefits and Wellbeing at Viatris. “I would never wish a diagnosis like this on anyone. But the clarity that it’s given me has been life changing. So I am grateful for this experience, because it’s made me a better co-worker, it’s made me a better friend, family member, partner – a better person overall. And so I wouldn’t change it for the world.”
It is a journey that has taken her, so far, through six years, 104 rounds of chemotherapy, 19 rounds of radiation, 6 ½ years of oral medication, 1 ½ years of a clinical trial and four surgeries. And it began when she found a lump in her breast following a vacation in 2017.
Though concerning enough for her to visit a doctor, Leah wasn’t overly worried. A nutritionist and former college athlete, she was young and active, had no family history of cancer and no genetic markers.
“I thought, ‘This has to be nothing,’” she recalled. “And within 3 ½ weeks, I found out that I had Stage 4 breast cancer.”
Moreover, it had spread from her breast to her lymph nodes, liver and lungs. Her doctors gave her about two more years to live.
“I was absolutely devastated, and very confused, because I had felt fine and this came out of nowhere. But my life changed in that moment forever,” she said.
The diagnosis also set her on a path that would both dramatically shape the rest of her life while surfacing the traits she had always carried. Hearing her diagnosis, one of her friends predicted: “You’re going to be the resource for all of us in the future.” She was right.
Leah’s first order of business was to learn how to become the healthiest version of herself while undergoing treatment. Because she focuses on wellness professionally, she already knew first-hand the value of healthy eating, exercise and mindfulness activities – and she felt the illness only magnified the importance of those steps, which gave her tools to fight back.
“When you get diagnosed with something like this, you don’t have a lot of control over anything that’s happening to you. You don’t know whether your body will respond to treatment, you don’t know what type of side effects you’re going to have,” she said. “To me, the wellness pillar – such as nutrition, exercise, mindfulness, movement, et cetera, sleep – all of those things were ways that I could empower myself to have some control over my outcome.”
When she stepped into her role at Viatris in 2022, she was excited about the opportunity to bring her perspective on wellness to the rest of the company.
“This is the first time I have been able to connect so directly with the mission of an organization,” said Leah, who takes a Viatris medication daily as part of her treatment. “I think being a cancer thriver – someone who’s been battling cancer for more than six years – I bring a certain level of empathy to the concept of well-being.”
Wellness is an idea that means different things to different people, she explained; it’s all about context. .
“It’s not about everyone having to go out and run a marathon,” she said. “It’s about finding ways to bring well-being into your life, whether that’s engaging with your community, or whether that’s baking with your family, or whether that’s being resilient when things are tough … My experience with cancer helps me broaden my definition of what well-being really means.”
Today, though treatment will continue for the rest of her life, she has lived three times longer than her original prognosis. And just as her friend predicted, she has become a resource for others: every few months, she hears from someone who wants to share their story. That has been incredibly important to Leah, who drew so much inspiration from other young women who shared her diagnosis and have lived and thrived. She started The Willow Foundation, which funds research connecting wellness principles to outcomes for late-stage cancer patients, and wrote “Nourishing Resilience: The Thriver’s Guidebook.”
On her 100th round of chemotherapy, Leah toasted her journey.
“When you can see the end of your life so clearly, it’s really easy to find the joy in all of life’s moments. I’ve really started to celebrate the little things,” she said. “And that’s brought me, and the people around me, a ton of joy.”