Image of Chris and Laurie Sanchez. Laurie was treated for breast cancer at MemorialCare Saddleback Medical Center.

Laurie, the cheerleader, and Chris, the football player, fell for each other at age 15 at Valencia High School in Placentia. They’ve been through prom, graduation, college, 27 years of marriage, and three kids, and declarations of love and devotion are still the norm.

So when Laurie, 51, a seasoned writer by profession, decided to try her hand at writing romance novels, she had decades of personal experience to draw from.

“I enjoy coming up with the characters, developing the conflict, and building the story line,” said Laurie, who lives in Rancho Santa Margarita and has four published romance novels so far.

And then … a personal plot twist.

Breast cancer.

It was October 2015. She had felt a lump that just didn’t seem right. A diagnostic ultrasound led to a biopsy of the area and lymph nodes. Gary Levine, M.D., medical director of the MemorialCare Breast Center at Saddleback Memorial, gave her the news. He provided encouraging data, however, indicating the survival rate for her type was high and assured her she was in good hands.

What now?

“The first amazing thing was the patient navigator gave us information on how to tell our children,” Laurie said. “It’s the first thing you think about as a mom — how will I tell them? That really helped me.”

Jackie Hower, breast care navigator, helped her outline next steps and set up appointments. Laurie had consultations with her breast surgeon, Anna Houterman, M.D., and her oncologist, Amol Rao, M.D., as well as testing with a genetic counselor. Since she tested negative for the BRCA (BReast CAncer) gene mutation, she opted for a lumpectomy. With her doctors, she decided the best approach for her was neoadjuvant therapy: chemotherapy first to shrink the tumor, followed by a lumpectomy and then radiation.

She started chemo in December 2015. She had extreme fatigue and other common side effects and was usually in bed for two days after each treatment, but her oncology team always had solutions to combat side effects. Her hair began falling out after two treatments, and she shaved the rest of the straggling strands on Christmas Day. Chris planned a calendar to make sure a friend or relative met her at each chemo treatment to pass the time. After two phases lasting more than 20 weeks, an MRI could detect no signs of cancer.

“My oncology nurse and the staff hugged me,” she said. “We were all so happy.”

Surgery came next. Chemotherapy had shrunk her tumor from 4 cm to less than 0.5 cm. Dr. Houterman removed the tumor and the tissue around it, and three lymph nodes.

She followed up with radiation to kill any cancer cells that might have been left behind. She met with Linda Chan, M.D., medical director of the MemorialCare Cancer Institute at Saddleback Memorial, who “explained everything so well, in a way you can understand.”

The Cancer Institute, which was designed and built into an existing building in 2014, received major funding from Foundation donors, such as the Damsker family, after which the pavilion is named.

“Everything inside is so calming and restorative,” Laurie said. “From the elegant lobby to the light panels on the ceilings that look like you’re looking up at the sky through trees, everything is so soothing.”

Laurie’s radiation treatments lasted five days a week, for almost eight weeks. On February 10, 2017, her last treatment, she received a “graduation” certificate and was invited to ring the celebratory bell.

“My experience with the Saddleback Memorial doctors and staff as well as the facility, every step of this journey, was phenomenal,” she said. “Today I know I have a lot more chapters to write.”

Happily ever after cancer.