Her battle adds meaning to soccer event

NEIGHBORS

October 12, 2007|By JANENE HOLZBERG

Even from her sickbed, Denise Leatherman wanted to help plan for this month's "Soccer Against Cancer" campaign. In the spring, too weak to do anything more, she created a logo of a soccer ball inscribed with the slogan, "Play well and do good."

The 6,000 young athletes of the Soccer Association of Columbia/Howard County have taken her advice to heart as they take to the fields wearing pink socks, shoelaces, nail polish and hair paint to raise money for breast cancer.

Tomorrow and Sunday, they will hold a "Think Pink Weekend" -- an information fair at Covenant Park in Ellicott City. Sadly, the event will serve as an unofficial memorial as well.

On Oct. 2, Leatherman, the wife of a popular soccer coach and mother of three soccer players, lost her four-year battle with breast cancer at age 47.

"We never imagined when we began planning this in March that it would turn out to be in her memory," said April Wall, a Glenmont neighbor and friend of eight years.

"Denise was the quintessential soccer mom, coming to nearly all of her kids' practices and games over the years," said Wall, whose son, A.J., has played on the Tidal Wave team with Sam Leatherman since they were 4 years old. "Everyone who knew her loved her."

Nearly 300 mourners filled St. John Evangelical Lutheran Church in Columbia for Leatherman's funeral service Oct. 4, and many youths wore their soccer jerseys as a show of support for family members, who have all been involved with the association at one time or another.

"After losing Denise so recently, our timing for this weekend's event isn't great, but perhaps it will be for a reason," Wall said.

Dave Leatherman said he hopes his wife's death will serve to remind women attending this weekend's event to get mammograms annually.

"Denise never once asked `Why me?' during nine rounds of chemotherapy," he said of his wife's fight against a particularly aggressive form of breast cancer.

She hid tubes to her arm, kidneys and stomach under her clothes so she could attend soccer practices and games without allowing her illness to dominate the conversations on the sidelines, he said. "But she did constantly ask, `What good is going to come of this disease?'

"So, to me, the important part of this monthlong campaign won't be the $40,000 we hope to raise, because that money won't cure cancer," he continued. "The important part is that this weekend, one or more women will decide to get screened, and a life may be saved."

Denise had a baseline mammogram in 2001 at age 40, just as doctors recommend for all women, but failed to get one the next year, her husband said. In 2003 she got back on track and had the annual X-ray, and that's when the cancer was diagnosed.

"She may have gotten the same diagnosis even if she'd hadn't skipped the mammogram in 2002," said Leatherman, also 47. "But then again, maybe she wouldn't have. Her story shows how important an extra year may be. The probability of survival is astronomically different with immediate detection."

Leatherman said he and his wife never gave up hope for her recovery, and that together they were straightforward about the disease's progression with their three children, 15-year-old Adam, 14-year-old Erin and Sam, 12.

"Our kids would ask, `Dad, is Mom going to die?' and I would say, `I can't promise you that she's going to live any more than I can promise I won't get hit by a car and killed as I commute to work each day,'" he recalled. "I told them we were doing everything in our power to see that she beats the disease. I wanted them to know that we would not live as if she was going to lose this fight."

Three weeks ago, when standard treatments had been exhausted, the couple began weighing experimental treatments, Leatherman said. One week before her death, Denise was admitted to the intensive care unit at Howard County General Hospital and put on medication to help stabilize her blood pressure. But that treatment failed, and the intravenous line was removed, he said.

"They told us she would only live for four to eight hours," Leatherman recalled, "so the kids all came in and got to tell her good-bye, and Denise could hug them and signal that she understood. That was a gift that not all families get in situations like ours."

The aggressiveness of his wife's form of breast cancer had earlier increased the couple's resolve to have the Soccer Against Cancer campaign focus on awareness and not just fundraising, Leatherman said.

While games are being played as usual at Northrop Fields throughout October, this weekend there will be organizations manning booths in the parking lot to hand out information on breast cancer screening, treatment options and support services. Representatives of the American Cancer Society, Survivors Offering Support, the Howard County Health Department, the Claudia Mayer Breast Cancer Foundation, Howard County General Hospital, and Susan G. Komen for the Cure will be present both days.

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