Abby Leonard

Chad Drury/The Courier

Ben Logan (left), with his mom and breast cancer survivor Abby Leonard, waves before the start of the Komen Race for the Cure Ottumwa vehicle parade Saturday in Ottumwa Park.

OTTUMWA — For Abby Leonard, the denial came before the path to recovery.

"I ignored it because I thought it would go away, and I didn't want to know. But it didn't go away," she said. "My mammogram had come back negative, but Dr. (Brian) Ortell was like, 'Something isn't quite right.' So we did a needle biopsy, and the result was that I had cancer.

"I completely fell apart."

Leonard discovered a lump on her left breast in March 2019, setting off a four-month whirlwind of emotions, doctor appointments, radiation and surgery. She told her story on the Komen of Greater Iowa Facebook page, then recounted it Saturday before the parade of survivors in Ottumwa Park.

Leonard, this year's honorary survivor of the Komen Race for the Cure Ottumwa, didn't immediately confront her family about finding the lump, and she wasn't quick to receive help from others once the diagnosis was out in the open.

"It was just surreal, an out-of-body experience," she said of telling her family. "But I knew that I needed to lean on my husband. I'm not the kind of person that asks for help. But I learned that it's OK to say yes, because people really want to help."

Leonard said there had been some family history of cancer.

"I had walked the walk every year, and my grandmother and stepmother had cancer," she said. "In the back of my mind, I thought, 'It could happen to me,' but then equally, 'It won't happen to me.'"

This year's Race for the Cure was a virtual event because of COVID-19. There were more than 400 survivors registered for the event, and the Susan G. Komen app allowed them to track their 3.1 miles as part of #RaceWhereYouAre. The app also allows for donating.

"It's amazing. It brings awareness to the cause," Leonard said of Komen. "It brings hope to people who feel alone in all of it. There's support and education for people who need that.

"I'm just learning so much about how much the team does."

Still, Leonard was disappointed, yet understood why, the event was virtual this year.

"As a family, we like to walk, and we knew that as soon as COVID hit, it was really going to be different," she said. "We had high hopes of walking as a team and having massive numbers and walking together. Hopefully next year."

Amara Huffine, the development and events director for Komen of Greater Iowa, said it was challenging to put together a program this year after having to move the original event from May 9. The end results were video presentations on Facebook, the app where survivors could track their steps, and then a socially distanced parade in Ottumwa Park featuring a handful of vehicles decked in banners, pink party decorations, etc.

"It's been an interesting year," Huffine said. "We really didn't know what it was going to look like, but we wanted to do it in a safe way to honor our survivors."

Huffine said the community had raised over $61,000 and was hopeful of reaching the group's goal of $65,000. The deadline to donate is Oct. 23. 

"We were down in attendance this year, but we can still surpass our goal," she said.

Leonard has been cancer-free for more than a year even though her fight isn't yet over. She also said the doctors had told her she might have had it for "two or three years." It was a slow-growing cancer.

"For me, that's where that self-breast exam was an absolute lifesaver," she said.

Chad Drury can be reached at cdrury@ottumwacourier.com, and on Twitter @ChadDrury

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