At 31, Lisa Lavender was on top of the world. She had a successful nail salon, a loving husband, and a beautiful 3-year-old daughter. And then one morning her world collapsed. She woke up and found her right breast was red and swollen. At first, the doctors thought it was an infection and gave her antibiotics. When the medication didn’t help, she had a mammogram, which didn’t show anything. Next, she had two fine-needle aspirations, and again, nothing. It wasn’t until she had a biopsy that doctors discovered a cancerous tumor.

 ‘No one in my family ever had cancer,’ says Lavender. ‘The doctors told me I had a rare, aggressive cancer that occurs in younger women a few years after childbirth.’

Once she was diagnosed, treatments began immediately. Lavender was given high-dose chemotherapy, followed by a modified radical mastectomy, and then six weeks of radiation therapy.

Her final step was reconstructive surgery. The procedure, originally set for August, had to be postponed three times. She finally had the surgery in October. Lavender, ever the optimist, says the postponements were a blessing for her career. ‘I was able to go to the NASA show, where I won second place in tip and overlay; I attended the regional training at Creative Nail Design Systems, where I scored best nails; I was offered a sponsorship by Creative for the NAHA Awards; and I was able to do the cover of NAILS," she says proudly.

Lavender who received her cosmetology license about 12 years ago, started out as a hairstylist. Soon after, she realized there was a great demand for nail technicians who could create natural-looking nails. Because of this demand and the fact that she did such a good job on her own sculptured nails, the salon asked her to become a nail technician. ‘I thought doing nails would be tedious, but the more you get into it, the more you get into the art,’ she says.

She eventually opened her own salon, Pizzazz Nail Salon in Johnson City, Tenn., in 1988. In March 1993, she moved to a new location. Nine months later she was diagnosed with cancer. ‘The first thing I did was sell my building to eliminate the high overhead because I knew I would be out of work for at least a year,’ she says. Luckily for her, Robert Hodge, a good friend whom she used to work for, had his own home-based hair salon and he told her she could move her business in with his.

Says Lavender, ‘At first, I couldn’t work at all because the treatments left me feeling ill and weak.’ Those first few months were a struggle financially and physically, she says. But, she adds, thanks to the love and support of her family, friends, and clients, she hasn’t faced her battles alone.

Throughout her ordeal, Lavender focused her waning energy on becoming a better business manager. ‘I realize now that when I go back to work, I can only accommodate so many clients a day. Before the cancer, I was working long, stressful hours, and I didn’t see my family much. When I go back, I want to only work eight-hour days and concentrate more on managing the salon rather than doing nails,’ she says.

Eventually, Lavender would like to see legislation passed that would allow her to open her own nails-only school. But for now, Lavender is focusing on her health and her family. ‘I am thankful that we caught the tumor early,’ she says, and offers other women this advice: ‘If you feel a lump or suspect anything, have it checked out right away. And if a doctor tells you to wait and come back in a few months, go to another doctor. When it comes to cancer, timeliness can mean life or death.’

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