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Deaf woman recounts battle with cancer
Deaf 1 WEB
Lisa Collis, right, talks about her experience fighting breast cancer as a deaf woman. Her interpreter and friend Liane Fain is at left. - photo by Autumn McBride

Earlier this year, Lisa Collis received the news that no one wants to get.

After finding a lump in her breast, she was diagnosed with stage II breast cancer.

At just 35 and with two young children to raise following a recent divorce, Collis was fearful and wondered how she would be able to manage.

But her situation was even more complicated than most.

Since a bout of spinal meningitis as an 18-month-old, Collis has been deaf and communicates completely with American sign language.

“I think I probably felt the same as any other person who has cancer, but the accessibility was a bigger challenge,” she said through her interpreter, Liane Fain.

Collis said communication was often difficult, especially when she was first diagnosed and going through treatments.

“When I’d go to doctor’s appointments, I’d have to explain to them how to provide an interpreter. Most of them thought I would just bring an interpreter with me, but that’s not how it works. They have to call a service that will then set up an interpreter to come to the appointments,” she said. “Especially that first month, I would go to the appointment and have no interpreter.”

But, she said, it didn’t take her doctors long to figure out how things worked, and often times she would have them request Fain as her interpreter.

The two have known each other for almost 10 years and share a unique bond.

Fain learned to speak sign language after her now 15-year-old daughter, Hannah, was born deaf.

A few years later, she decided to get her certification as an interpreter. As part of the licensure process, Fain had to obtain 200 hours of community service through interpreting with the Georgia Association of the Deaf.

She decided to volunteer with the organization’s annual pageant, of which Collis was the director at one time.

The two became fast friends. In 2006, when she was also 35, Fain was diagnosed with breast cancer.

She finished her surgeries, chemotherapy and radiation treatments in 2007 and has since been cancer free. But during her battle, Collis was a great support, Fain said.

“I don’t know what I would have done without her,” Fain said. “She was always there and was an especially great comfort to Hannah. I wanted Hannah to have someone else who was deaf who she could really communicate her feelings with.”

When Collis was diagnosed in January, Fain was quick to return that support.

Fain has been to many doctor’s appointments with Collis, serving as her interpreter, and probably more importantly her friend.

“She was one of the first people I called when I was diagnosed,” Collis said. “At appointments, she knew exactly what questions to ask and I could ask her for advice on anything I was going through. I felt totally comfortable with her because she had gone through the same things I was going through."

Fain was among friends and family members who also helped out with Collis’ daughter and son — McKenzie, 6, and Drew, 3.

“It’s been rough, but I’m very fortunate to have a wonderful ex-husband, mother and a lot of friends in the area who offered to keep the kids,” she said. “Everyone pitched in and let me rest when I needed to.”

Collis underwent four rounds of chemotherapy, a double mastectomy and reconstructive surgery.

She’s now cancer free.

She plans to continue her work as a deaf mentor with Georgia Parent Infant Network for Educational Services, or PINES, which helps hearing parents of babies born deaf.

She’s also registered to go back to school at North Georgia College & State University in Dahlonega this fall, where she wants to finish her bachelor’s degree in forensic science.

No matter where the future takes her, it seems she’ll always have a friend in Fain.

The two walked together in a breast cancer awareness 5K not long after Collis began her first round of chemotherapy.

Fain said even through Collis was tired from the treatment, she “was stubborn about walking.”

“She said, ‘I might not be able to do the whole thing, but I can walk the first mile,’” Fain said. “And she did.”

For Collis, that walk was “a new beginning.”

“I thought once I’m finished with this journey [of breast cancer], I will have a healthier life. I’ll be a better mom, a better friend and a better person all because of having cancer.

“While it probably sounds weird to most people, having cancer was one of the best things to ever happen to me.”