Growing up in Tipp City, a tiny town in Ohio, I had big plans. When I was younger, I worked a lot with kids and after-school reading programs, so I thought I would go into some sort of social work or that I would help at-risk kids and teens. I loved giving them the support that they might not get other places. But at 18, I met my husband Steve, and we got married a year later. By the time I was 28, we had three kids—Christian, Caleb and Cara, and I was going to college when I wasn’t taking care of them, just trying to finish.
One day in 2002, when we were visiting my mom, her neighbor approached me while I was playing with my kids in the yard. She told me she’d been helping a woman who was only 23 and battling stage IV breast cancer and asked if I knew anybody who would want the woman’s baby daughter. A midwife by trade, she was a compassionate person and knew that working with at-risk populations had always been a passion of mine, so she thought I might have some ideas for how to help.
I spent three days praying on it. My husband and I hadn’t talked about adopting—we already had three little kids, so we thought we were done—but after four nights of tossing and turning, I told him, “I think we’re supposed to adopt this baby.” I asked if he’d be open to at least speaking with Alexis Preston, the woman who needed help.
That weekend we went to the Meijer megastore in Dayton where Alexis wanted to meet. Thin as a stick and dressed up in a wig, she said to us, “I’m looking for someone to take my baby. I just want to know that you’re going to love her.” My husband just melted right there; he would have done anything for her because she was so sick with no support.
During the next three weeks, I visited with Alexis and her baby at Children’s Services a few times, and I saw that Alexis was all about fighting to live. She wasn’t going into this arrangement thinking, I’m finding my daughter a home because I’m going to die. It was more like, I’m finding her a good home because I’m going to get better, but I need help taking care of her now. She was a fighter.
The baby—also named Alexis, but we call her Lexi—was 10 months old when we took full custody of her in June of 2002. Over the next year, the three kids and I sometimes took Lexi to see her mom at chemotherapy or to get groceries. We’d bring Alexis medicine and we’d talk about her dreams for the future. (“I should be on American Idol,” she’d say, always spunky and proud.) The last time I saw her—bald, 80 pounds, and only 24—I just sobbed. She died a week later.
It was hard to adjust at first, but life with Lexi became second nature. All of our family, but especially Steve and I, just have this immense love for her. To us, she’s no different than our biological kids. We tell Lexi how hard her mom fought and how much like her she is. Now, 10 years later, Lexi is 15 and Cara is 16 and they act like twins.
The February after Alexis passed, Steve and I planned a small getaway for our anniversary. I was taking a shower to get ready for our trip and thought, I should probably do a breast self-exam. Alexis was super young. And I felt this hard lump. When the doctors told me it was cancer, I was screaming in my head, What? My kids are going to lose their mother? And Lexi’s going to lose two moms? I’m always the strong one, but then, I was not so strong.
I was mad, I was scared, and I didn’t want to talk about it. Once I started losing my hair, I wore a wig everywhere, because I didn’t want anyone to know. I didn’t want anyone to feel sorry for my kids. But my husband was a rock, and I was so lucky my cancer responded to treatment. Had it not been for Lexi’s mom, I would never have done that self-exam. She saved my life.
Fast forward to today, and Lexi has to get checked, because her mom was only 22 when she was diagnosed. That was a really hard conversation with the oncologist; both Cara and Lexi thought they had cancer when they started getting breast buds. We had really candid conversations with them, because at the end of the day, no matter what, every girl just wants to know that she will live.
With my social work background, I always knew I wanted to help women cope with breast cancer. Alexis rode home from her mastectomy on a bus. She never, not one time, had someone go to treatment with her until she met us—that’s why she wouldn’t go half the time. In 2007 I met Tracie Martin at a young survivors conference. I joined the small nonprofit she started, called Pink Ribbon Girls, and later became President/CEO.
Together with Tracie, I helped to write a grant that’s given us the funds to serve healthy meals and offer house cleaning to breast cancer patients. Those funds also go towards transportation so that other women don’t have to endure those long solo bus rides like Alexis did, and so they can know they’re supported, even if only by strangers.
We come from all different backgrounds, all different socioeconomics, and everybody really wants the same thing: You want to live and you want your kids to be okay. I think back on Lexi’s mom, and I know it could’ve very easily been me.