Beating the odds

Cancer survivor fosters resilience through nonprofit

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Leah Evert beats the odds

SUMMARY: In the face of a devastating cancer diagnosis, Leah Evert (’03) began researching the connections between nutrition, exercise and mindset to improved outcomes — then created a foundation to fund late-stage cancer research.

By Khalil Garriott (’04)

Doctors didn’t think she’d still be alive. Now she’s thriving. 

When Leah Evert (’03) was diagnosed with stage 4 breast cancer in 2017 at age 36, she was told she was going to die within the next two years. The cancer, found in her lymph nodes, had metastasized to her liver. Four months of aggressive chemotherapy followed. 

That’s when she experienced an inflection point in her life. She made a decision to take control of her health. She began researching the connections between nutrition, exercise and mindset to improved cancer outcomes — and found very few studies on the topic. 

“I knew that by taking control of what I could, I could have some influence over my outcomes,” said Evert, who majored in Kinesiology with a concentration in Exercise Science. 

While at JMU, Evert was one of the founding members of the varsity softball team. After graduating, she earned a master’s degree in Sports Nutrition and Exercise Science. She’s now a registered dietitian and certified exercise physiologist. She believes that her physically active lifestyle, prioritizing her personal health and becoming an expert in the industry contributed to her beating the grim odds of survival. 

“I am certain that my commitment to well-being has made an impact on my success,” said Evert, currently in complete remission. 

Leah Evert friend
Evert and her best friend, Janine Klein (’01, ’03M), co-founded The Willow Foundation, which raises money for late-stage cancer research.

Evert’s inspiring story doesn’t stop there. After learning about the lack of research funding for improved cancer outcomes from healthy living, she again took matters into her hands. Along with her best friend, health professional Janine Klein (’01, ’03M), Evert co-founded The Willow Foundation, a nonprofit that fundraises for late-stage cancer research. 

Klein, a former assistant coach of the JMU softball team, has worked in fitness and wellness for more than a decade. She’s also a certified personal trainer and, like Evert, an exercise physiologist. 

“We’ve funded four peer-reviewed projects over the past three years and have raised more than $100,000,” Evert said. “We’ve worked with Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York, and, most recently, funded a novel study on mindset in collaboration with the Comedy Cures Foundation.” 

Now in its fifth year of existence, The Willow Foundation helps empower cancer patients and increase their likelihoods of remission, expand their life expectancies and improve their quality of life. Relying on medicine alone is just not enough, according to the foundation. Willow helps connect the dots between patients’ lifestyles and their responses to complementary cancer treatments. 

Evert’s steadfast commitment to positivity is evident in the pages of her new book, Nourishing Resilience: The Thriver’s Guidebook. All proceeds go to Willow. In part, it chronicles her deeply personal story about her cancer journey with actionable steps for anyone to use. Despite 82 rounds of chemotherapy, 19 rounds of radiation and seven surgeries, she is stronger than ever. 


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Published: Friday, April 8, 2022

Last Updated: Thursday, January 4, 2024

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