Like many college students, Tara Leonard was scared and unsure of her future when she started at Minnesota School of Business-Rochester (MSB) in the fall of 2012. She was in her late 30s, a single mother of two, working both a full-time and part-time job. But little did she know her biggest challenge was still ahead, nor did she realize the amazing strength and power to inspire that lie within her.
“Tara wanted a better life for herself and her kids,” recalls admission representative Laura Thomas, “but she just didn’t know if she could balance it all.” With some encouragement from a friend who works as a life coach and reassurance from Laura that she’d receive the support she needed, Tara followed her passion, and enrolled in the vet tech program.
Tara quickly found her place and success at MSB. She got involved on campus and kept focused on her studies, earning a 4.0 in her first quarter. Tara also received the campus’ research award. She became a big part of life on campus.
“Tara knows everyone and everyone knows Tara,” says Laura. “She’s just one of those people… always the first one to welcome a new vet tech student.” Things were going great for Tara at home too. She had recently been married. Life was going well. That is, until November 28, 2014, a day that is now forever etched in her memory.
“I was lying in bed studying for one of my classes, when my dog, Willow, started acting strange and needy. Being in the vet tech program I knew animals have a way of sensing things,” says Tara. “She jumped up on the bed and nudged at my left side. I shooed her down, but she did it two more times. The third time, she had slobber all over her nose. When I went to wipe it off, that is when I felt it.”
“It” was a lump, later diagnosed as stage 2A, grade 3, triple negative, invasive ductal carcinoma, better known to most as breast cancer. Tara’s specific diagnosis meant the cancer had spread outside the milk duct, but not yet to her lymph node. Triple negative meant her cancer lacked any of the three receptors that respond to hormone therapy. Because of that, her doctors did not want to waste any time.
So with a quarter left to go before graduation, Tara reached out to Laura, as well as her program chair and a few others at MSB to explain what she was up against.
“That is probably what made me the maddest about the whole thing. I just had my externship left, and then this,” says Tara. “They all told me I needed to focus on myself right now, and that they were behind me to support me however they could.”
On January 5, just three weeks after her official diagnosis, Tara underwent surgery to remove her cancer, which included a partial mastectomy. That was followed by nine months of chemotherapy and radiation. While Tara was physically away from campus, she was never far from the hearts and minds of many. SCNAVTA, the student vet tech club, renamed themselves “Tara’s Pack” while she was out. Tara stayed connected with students and staff through Facebook, and notes and cards of encouragement. And while they showered her with support, Laura says Tara did far more for them.
“She is beyond inspiring,” Laura said through tears. “Her message the entire time was ‘I will be back. I will not let cancer defeat me.’ And she meant it. Whenever I am having a tough day, all I have to do is think of her and it keeps me going.”
Tara concurs that message. “There was never a moment I thought I would not beat this,” she says. “I have grandkids yet to meet and a son to see graduate.” On September 4, Tara got the confirmation she needed and was given the all clear. A month later, she returned for the fall quarter to complete her degree. It is no surprise to anyone that she spent much of her recovery studying and staying current on what she had already been taught. She will spend six weeks auditing a class as a refresher, before beginning her externship this winter.
As you would imagine, cancer has not slowed Tara down. It has only motivated her more. She is now serving as the publicity chair for the Mississippi Shuffle Relay for Life event next summer which benefits the American Cancer Society.
With October being Breast Cancer Awareness month, Tara has the following message for all women, “For women of all ages, get to know your breasts. If you notice something different or just not quite right, see your physician. Breast cancer is not simply just finding a lump. There are different types and the most important of all is detecting it early. Educate yourself and your family. Breast cancer does not run in my family… it does now.”
And for those thinking about returning to college or making a career change, but aren’t sure they can do it, she adds “follow your heart. You only get one life on this earth. Do what makes you happy and live life. It’s scary making a big life decision to go back to school or change careers. But it’s scarier to think of all the regrets one may have and all the ‘what ifs’ if you don’t do it.”