Editor's note: Butte's Relay for Life event is Sunday, Sept. 29. Leading up to the event, The Montana Standard will profile someone fighting cancer each day this week.
Connie LeVasseur says, "I'm just too stubborn to die."
The 71-year-old retired Butte nurse learned she had cancer in her colon during a routine screening in 2009. She had surgery to remove the cancer but discovered six years later during a medical procedure for an unrelated issue that the disease had spread to her lungs.
In an instant, LeVasseur went from thinking she was cancer-free to finding out that she had advanced cancer.
“I was scared,” said LeVasseur, adding that her first instinct was to worry for her children.
In those years between 2009 and 2015, LeVasseur didn’t feel any pain or symptoms that would lead her to believe something was wrong, and even today she doesn’t feel the cancer in her lungs. All she feels is the effects of the chemo, which often leave her feeling sick for days.
“That’s why they call it the silent killer,” LeVasseur said.
LeVasseur has undergone around 89 chemo treatments. She’s been in remission three times and has periodic CAT scans to monitor the disease, along with her regular chemo treatments. Today she has two small tumors in her left lung and one in her right, which appear to not be growing for the time being.
LeVasseur said she’s well known in her doctor’s office in Anaconda.
She said whenever she sees a patient in the waiting room who looks sad, she tries to make them laugh, adding that it’s the nurse in her that wants to cheer people up.
“You might as well laugh and enjoy yourself,” she said, noting that there’s no point in dwelling on the negative.
LeVasseur said the other patients become familiar faces, and during treatments they are sitting so close she can almost reach out and touch them. However, she refrains from asking names because sometimes some of the familiar faces stop appearing.
Maybe the faces have gotten better. Maybe not.
Some stones are better left unturned.
LeVasseur said her family is her support system, including son Del LeVasseur and his wife Sheena, daughter Colette Getten, daughter Connie Beery and her husband Bruce, and her grandchildren. She also sang the praises of her doctor, D. James Hueftle, and his staff.
LeVasseur said she has lost her hair three times throughout her battle with cancer and that it was her granddaughter Ali Getten who helped her through a difficult time when she had to get her locks of blonde hair cut because they were falling out in clumps. Ali went with her grandmother, and when things got difficult, Ali told her grandmother to look at her and not at the mirror as her hair was being cut.
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LeVasseur has walked in Relay for Life for several years. This year her daughters set up a team in her honor, which has raised around $1,000 for the event.
LeVasseur is also an alumna of Mending in the Mountains, an annual women’s retreat in Big Sky for Montana women who have experienced cancer.
“They spoil you,” said LeVasseur, noting that the retreat offers things like massage, pedicures, catered meals, and recreational activities — a bit of pampering and peace amid the chaos created by the disease.
But the most therapeutic part of the retreat, LeVasseur said, is getting to talk with other people whose lives have been touched by cancer.
LeVasseur says there are just some topics that are too difficult to talk about with friends and family.
“When you talk about cancer, you talk about dying,” said LeVasseur.
But at the retreat, she said, women with cancer can find a safe space to talk about their experiences, no matter how taboo.
“There you can do it freely,” she said.
She added that she hopes she can find a similar outlet in her hometown.
LeVasseur worked 40 years as a nurse, including at Warm Springs, and has served as a caretaker for several family members, including her mother Jennie Sullivan, who lived to be 99 and died in February.
“I miss her every day,” she said, noting that her mom was her best friend.
LeVasseur said she’s not sure how one deals with thoughts about death. She says she just wonders where people go when they die and marvels at how a person can be full and active and possess an entire life story and then be gone in an instant.
Since her cancer diagnosis, things that used to seem important no longer matter. The material world now means less, and she spends more of her time thinking about family members and her children — whether they’ll be okay when she’s gone.
LeVasseur said her doctor is impressed with her ability to hang on and often calls her a miracle.
“I’ve been really lucky,” she said. “I’m grateful for what I’ve got.”