Breathing deeply

By Glenda Winders  //  Photography by Stacy Able
For Jessica Limeberry, lung cancer was a chapter, not the whole story

For the past few years, Jessica Limeberry has been busy. In 2014 she bought Sophia’s, a bridal boutique in Southport, and moved the shop to an old post office building that she completely renovated. Until 2016, she also worked as a wedding photographer, a profession she had started in college. Then in 2017 her husband, Matt Limeberry, was deployed to Afghanistan, leaving her to care for their four young sons. And in 2018 she was diagnosed with lung cancer. She was 33 years old.

While Matt was out of the country, Jessica’s symptoms began. She had a cough and difficulty breathing. Her pulmonologist diagnosed her with adult-onset asthma and started her on a regimen of medications and inhalers. But the regimen didn’t seem to help.

When she and Matt celebrated his homecoming with a trip to Europe, immersed in the rainy London clime, she realized that something was quite wrong. Upon their return home, she underwent a series of tests, which revealed a collapsed lung and the carcinoid tumor. But, Jessica says, the news didn’t devastate her.

“I felt relieved and grateful to actually have an answer because I had been going for a year with all of these symptoms that no one could pinpoint,” she says. “I was glad to be able to move on in a positive direction that I thought would solve the problem.”

The surgery to remove the tumor and the lower part of her left lung a week later was so successful that she didn’t have to undergo any other treatments, for which she says she is grateful.

“Of course, I was nervous,” she says. “But mostly it was about the logistics of what would happen to my kids while I was having surgery and recovering. I had a deep faith that everything would turn out the way it’s supposed to and that this wouldn’t be the end of my story.”

Once she posted her situation on social media, food, gift cards and offers of help poured in. Claire Black, her cousin and best friend, was one of the people who helped see her through the ordeal.

“Though it was difficult to see her suffering through her diagnosis and surgery, it was so gratifying to get to see her receive back from others the support, prayers and acts of service that she so freely gives to others all the time,” Black says. “Jessica’s soul is full of pure kindness, and her family, friends, employees and even strangers benefit from the creative ways she shares that kindness every day.”

Kindness returned
As proof of that point, Jessica has now added to her list of responsibilities working with the American Lung Association to raise awareness of the disease in women and money for its treatment.
“Lung cancer is a very hard cancer to raise money for because of the stigma attached to it, that you have it because you’re a smoker,” Jessica says. “I’ve never smoked in my life.”

The ALA recently honored her with the Lung Force Impact Award for her efforts to get the word out, a labor of love about which she is passionate.

“The rate at which women are being diagnosed is rising every year, while the rate for men is dropping, and it’s more and more young women,” she says. “More women will be diagnosed in a year than breast cancer, ovarian cancer and cervical cancer combined. Every five minutes a woman is diagnosed, and one in 17 women will develop lung cancer in her lifetime. There’s obviously something in our environment or our lifestyle that’s affecting women.”

As part of her effort, she has sold tickets to the ALA’s annual luncheon, made a video to tell her story and worked with businesses to create fundraising events. The next one will be on Nov. 30, Small Business Saturday, when the group will take part in a Chocolate Extravaganza at the Sycamore at Mallow Run, south of Greenwood.

She says the one important point she wants to get across to the people to whom she speaks is to take care of themselves when they feel something is wrong.

“I feel very strongly that you have to listen to your body and advocate for what you’re feeling,” she says. “I had to be persistent and really fight for further investigation of my symptoms. I’m very big on telling women, and men, that if you feel like something is wrong, don’t ignore it.”

Matt, who is a major in the Indiana Army National Guard stationed at Camp Atterbury, says the response to his wife’s outreach has been gratifying.

“We’ve had several people write us letters and emails expressing that their mother or aunt or sister or they themselves have gone through exactly the same thing, and they didn’t realize the disease was so prevalent in women,” he says.  “Jessica is an impressive woman. Her impact reaches beyond what we’ll see in our lifetime, and she’s not done yet.”

Saying ‘yes’ to the dress
Indeed, her illness didn’t keep her down for long. This past May she opened a second location of Sophia’s in Columbus, and she runs her businesses with the same energy and optimism for which she is known in her personal life, working from home two days a week and dividing the rest of her time between the two stores. She and her 16 employees (20 more during prom season) work hard to make their customers’ special events memorable.

“We work one-on-one with our customers to make sure they’re being loved and treated well and feeling really confident,” she says. “We’re big about body positivity, making sure that every woman feels good about her big day. It’s an important life moment, and we want to treat it as such.”

She says in addition to body issues her staff often has to navigate complicated family dynamics. “We always make sure the actual process of picking out a dress is a really positive experience, not just the wedding itself but the whole shebang surrounding the wedding is enjoyable as well.”

Family time
Jessica’s own relationship sounds a little like something from a fairy tale. She and Matt dated at Center Grove High School and on through college while he was at Indiana State and IUPUI and she was at DePauw. Then they married and had their children: Bryson, 11; Cohen, 8; Grady, 6; and Adler, 5. Now they spend what free time they have involved in family activities: sports (especially basketball), riding bikes, being outside, movie nights and spending time with their extended families, who live nearby.

“She’s probably one of the best military spouses you can find,” Matt says. “When I have to be gone for long periods of time, she handles the stresses of four boys and multiple businesses with grace and compassion. She’s never one to complain, and she’s fully supportive. She’s go, go, go, but her go, go, go is selfless.”

Despite Jessica’s high energy level, she says even before her illness she had been trying to slow down her life and be more introspective, to notice small things and be appreciative. She says this effort has led to her being happier and more confident in the multiple areas of her busy life.

And now the future is looking especially bright. In addition to her family, her stores and her work for the ALA, recent scans have indicated that she is cancer-free.

“I could not ask for anything more,” she says.