It was an unconventional end to an unconventional college experience, but LeighAnn Brooks wouldn’t change a thing. Brooks, of Huntertown, had the unique experience May 30 of delivering a virtual commencement speech for the Western Governors University Class of 2020, earning two degrees while at the same time raising four children, working full time and battling breast cancer.
She’s succeeded at all five.
“It felt like I had conquered the world after going through cancer treatments. I didn’t think anything could be harder than that,” she said.
Four years ago, Brooks was working as a diabetes educator for Parkview Health, was a married mother of four and knew she would eventually go back to school to earn her bachelor’s degree in nursing. When she received her cancer diagnosis, it prevented her from finishing her coursework and ultimately derailed her career. After eight rounds of surgeries, eight rounds of chemotherapy, 33 rounds of radiation and a total of eight months off work, Brooks was cancer-free. However, the health care profession had evolved in her absence.
By the time Brooks returned to work, Parkview had achieved Magnet status, her department had been realigned under a new director, nurses were being encouraged to get their BSNs, and the degree was mandated for new hires. Despite these changes, Brooks was promoted to a lead position within her department shortly after her return from leave.
“As a leader, I was compelled to support the organization by obtaining my BSN,” Brooks said, “but I was concerned about returning to school. I had mounting medical bills, we’d had a reduction in income while I was off work and, in addition, my oldest child herself would be heading off to college in just three short years.”
On a recommendation from her director, Brooks decided to look into classes a WGU Indiana. She finished her BSN in two terms — about one year — and just three months later decided to earn her master’s degree.
“I had nothing but an amazing experience there. Everyone I worked with — my teachers, my mentors — were fantastic,” she said. “When I finished my BSN, I thought if it was that enjoyable and quick and painless, I might as well just finish my MSN. … When I passed the final capstone, I cried. There were tears of joy, pride, accomplishment and, of course, relief. It felt as if I had finally completed the last leg of my cancer journey, and I had driven in that last stake.”
Brooks gave her commencement speech as part of WGU’s first ever virtual graduation ceremony. She was originally slated to speak at a commencement ceremony in Charlotte, North Carolina, before the COVID-19 pandemic put an end to large public gatherings for the remainder of the school year. The university ended up sending her all the necessary equipment to record her speech at home. The school celebrated the achievements of nearly 230 undergraduate and graduate degree recipients. Of those graduating, 74% were from traditionally underserved populations, including 43% who were first-generation college students.
WGU is a nonprofit, online, competency-based university. Terms are six months long, and students can begin on the first day of any month. The university has affiliates in eight states — the first of which was Indiana, which celebrated its 10th anniversary June 10.
Brooks currently serves as the nurses services operational lead in Parkview’s Diabetes Education Center, and is also a registered dietitian. She holds a specialist certification in diabetes care and education, and she is working toward becoming board certified in advanced diabetes management. She had worked for Parkview for 21 years before receiving her cancer diagnosis, and despite earning two college degrees during an exceptionally turbulent time in her life, she’s still setting more goals for herself.
“There’s always little things you can do to better yourself,” she said. “I think my pre-cancer self spent a lot more time stressing about things, and now I just feel more go-with-the-flow. It makes you appreciate what you have and what you can achieve. When you get diagnosed, you have to make the choice of whether it’s going to destroy you or you’re going to destroy it.”
Having gone through cancer treatment, Brooks has made it her new mission to help others walk the path to survival. That desire gave birth to a new nonprofit organization, the Peppermint Giggles Project, which Brooks co-founded alongside another cancer survivor and personal friend Kim Evans of Fort Wayne.
The name comes from two personal memories Brooks has — both related to cancer, but at different times in her life. Her grandma also received a diagnosis, and would frequently eat peppermints to get the bad taste out of her mouth after having her chemo ports flushed. And when Brooks was fighting her own battle with cancer, one of her close friends always kept her laughing.
As the founders of the Peppermint Giggles Project, Brooks and Evans provide chemotherapy care packages to newly diagnosed cancer patients, including close to 40 items to bring some comfort to a difficult situation. Some of the items include blankets, candy, hand sanitizer, hand lotion, antacids, lip balm, mouthwash, tissues, gum and water bottles.
“I had my family, friends and an amazing network at my side when I was going through treatment,” Brooks said. “As I sat in the chemo room receiving my treatments, it was pretty evident that not everyone has that, so I wanted to do something to help others who are going through the same thing. It really is difficult to navigate all of these things if you’re not a medical professional or have a lot of support.”
Anyone waging their own fight with cancer can visit peppermintgigglesproject.com. The organization also welcomes donations.