Why Hawthorn Woods cancer patient is taking a 500-mile walk
You would never know by looking, but Hawthorn Woods resident Leslie Ferris Yerger is fighting for her life.
"I don't look sick. I don't feel sick. I don't act sick. Sometimes it's hard to believe," she says.
Ferris Yerger has Stage IV lobular breast cancer. The disease was long-hidden by dense breast tissue and not visible in a mammogram or sonogram.
Since the devastating diagnosis, she has made it a mission to support research to improve early detection.
"It's too late for me but it's not too late for other people," Ferris Yerger says matter-of-factly.
She is heading to Paris today to begin an adventurous mission she hopes will raise $100,000 to help others avoid what she is experiencing.
For the next 35 to 40 days, she'll be walking solo along the Frances Way, a 500-mile and most heavily traveled segment of the Camino de Santiago.
From Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port in France to the Cathedral in Santiago de Compostela in Galacia, Spain, Frances Way traverses the Pyrenees and winds through many towns and villages.
Camino means "the way" and is a network of trails throughout Europe leading to the cathedral where the bones of St. James the apostle reportedly are kept.
The spiritual passage came to the big screen in the 2010 movie "The Way" starring Martin Sheen.
Ferris Yerger, a former computer programmer, production supervisor and business development manager, received her diagnosis last year after visiting her general practitioner for a routine physical when she turned 55.
The doctor suggested a bone density scan to establish a baseline for comparison going forward.
"They saw some really weird irregularities," she said of the scan.
Multiple myeloma, a type of cancer, was ruled out. But it later was determined that breast cancer had metastasized to her bones.
She takes a relatively new FDA-approved drug and is responding well to the course of treatment. She also is part of the PROMISE study at the Mayo Clinic to change and improve care for those with metastatic breast cancer.
Having seen "The Way," she and her husband, John, this past May walked a portion of the Portuguese Way.
"I walked 14 or 15 miles on that trip and it struck me -- I think I can do this. It gave me confidence," she said.
So began the planning for Frances Way. For fundraising assistance, she turned to Barrington resident and friend Bob Lee, who traveled 12,000 miles on three solo bike rides across the U.S. to raise $1.3 million for ALS and cancer research, as well as hospice care.
"She's strong, positive and committed," Lee said. "Sometimes people are given a diagnosis and it's 'woe is me.' She's trying to help future generations."
As part of the effort, the Foglia Family Foundation will match donations up to $50,000.
Ferris Yerger has always been a walker but has stepped up the frequency and duration to toughen her feet. She also has been weight training to strengthen her back and shoulders to carry a 20-pound pack containing all her travel needs, including three sets of clothes.
"I just find it inspirational," Lee said.
"So often if people focus on helping others, it'll make them feel a lot better."