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Dorena Lemus celebrates 6 years of recovery after battling rare form of cancer
Dorena Lemus poses for a photo after finishing a workout Oct. 1.

Dorena Mobley Lemus never missed a mammogram.

So, when she went in for her annual appointment in December 2010, she wasn’t expecting anything out of the ordinary.

At 52, she was healthy and active. She worked full-time as the owner of Personal Touch House Cleaning in Buford. Sometimes she was tired and sore, but she figured it was from hours scrubbing floors and showers.

But before she left the hospital that day, she received news that would change her life. Tests confirmed she had developed Stage 3 breast cancer.

For two weeks, Lemus and her husband, Victor, sat in silence, in too much shock to even turn on the television. It was just one of several stages of emotion for the couple.

“You go through denial, then you go through acceptance, then you’re angry and sad,” Victor said. “It’s almost like losing a loved one, but not quite, because the future is unknown. You don’t know whether they’re going to live or not.”

Victor served as caregiver and advocate for his wife, researching treatments and statistics about her extremely rare and aggressive cancer. He cared for her through a year of chemotherapy — seven hours a day every three weeks — a double mastectomy, radiation and treatment with herceptin, an antibody used to fight certain types of breast cancer.

Dorena’s daughter, Jessica, a veterinary student at the time, also provided support. She accompanied her mother to doctor’s appointments and asked questions to help sort through the complicated medical terminology.

“Anytime you’re dealing with cancer, it’s scary with not knowing what to expect, and I fortunately had the background in the sciences and medicine to better understand it and be there for her,” Jessica said. “It was great to see her fight through it and come out the other side, and it just shows how strong she is.”

Inspired by her mother’s fight, Jessica now works as a veterinary oncologist at St. Francis Veterinary Specialists in Decatur.  

And fight is exactly what Dorena did. Never one for self-pity or wallowing, the Gainesville woman set out to prove she couldn’t be beat.

Through it all, she held her business together. Cancer took her hair and fingernails, but it wasn’t going to take the element she dedicated her life to since 1989.

Doctors warned her that she might not ever get back to her former activity levels, but she was determined. She would not only to come back, but to come back stronger.

“I would say, ‘I’m glad God allowed me to have this, because I’m going to help other people,’” she said. “I’d put on Facebook a lot of times, ‘Cancer picked the wrong person to mess with, because I will prevail.’ It’s almost like a challenge that you’re going to win.”

Her best friends, Panda Jones and Johanna DeLoatch, supported and cheered for Dorena along the way.

Jones sat with her through all but one of her chemo sessions, reminiscing and offering words of encouragement to pass the time.

“It’s changed everything about our relationship, how we interact, how we feel about each other,” Jones said. “We’ve always been close, but I think she has a different perspective (now). We’d call and we never were good about saying ‘I love you.’ Now it’s just part of our conversation before we get off the phone.”

DeLoatch, who has known Dorena for 27 years, encouraged her friend to get active after she completed her treatment. The two regularly run 5-kilometer races and the Peachtree Road Race together.

 “I hopefully helped her in keeping her active and keeping her focused on something else by doing races,” DeLoatch said. “Sometimes I don’t really think I did that much, that’s just what you do when you’ve got a friend. What else would you do? Of course you’re going to be there for them.”

Inspired by Lance Armstrong’s nonprofit cancer foundation  Livestrong, DeLoatch made bands to hand out to Dorena’s support group. It said, “Hope, faith, love, strength. Help Dorena win the fight.”

“I thought that if I made them and passed them out to all her friends and she got to see people wearing them, it would make her feel good that we were all fighting with her and she was not alone,” DeLoatch said. “I think I wore it everyday during her fight. It helped me to remember to constantly be in touch with her and keep her motivated.”

It did. Two years after her diagnosis, Dorena was back to cleaning at her business and returned to her active lifestyle, participating in boot camp three to four days a week and running races every year.

Dorena credits her loving family, friends and customers with giving her the strength to win her battle. To reflect this, she redesigned her company’s logo as a drawing of her, with a scarf around her head, along with Jones and DeLoatch.

On Dec. 16, Dorena will celebrate six years of survival, but for her the fight is never over. She continues to give back and foster a supportive community, by providing free cleanings to clients who are fighting cancer and encouraging others to be proactive about mammograms and screenings.

“I try to help when I come across people who are going through cancer,” she said. “It’s scary, but I feel like now that I’m past all that, I can give people hope.”