Tough With a Tender Heart: Surviving Her Mother’s Battle with Breast Cancer

Editor’s Note: October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month. According to KFF, “breast cancer is the most commonly diagnosed cancer and the second leading cause of cancer death” among women in the United States . This article is shared to encourage readers to understand the importance of monthly breast self-examinations and regular breast cancer screenings. This story shares the journey of a construction industry leader overcoming the loss of her mother to breast cancer. Her story is one of strength, resiliency, and hope. Please see the resources at the end of the article.

Vicki O’Leary is an influential leader in the construction industry. She is the General Organizer/Director of Diversity for the International Association of Bridge, Structural, Ornamental and Reinforcing Iron Workers (aka the Iron Workers Union).  She joined the Iron Workers in 1985. She shares she got involved in a construction career on “a bet between me and my brother. He told me I couldn’t do what him and our dad do (ironwork)”, to which she replied, “Game on!”  

She’s worked in construction for 36 years. O’Leary predominantly worked as an ironworker in the field for 20 of those years. In 2005 while still titled as an ironworker, she started doing Environmental Safety & Health for the City of Chicago. O’Leary was appointed the chair of the North America’s Building Trade Unions (NABTU) Women’s Committee in 2017.  NABTU consists of 14 large construction labor unions. This placed her in a leadership role for Trade Women Build Nations (formerly known as Women Build Nations and even earlier as Women Build California). This is where I first met Vicki leading up to the 2018 conference in Seattle where she invited me to present 3 sessions on suicide prevention. This remains one of my most memorable industry events ever. 

In 2019, she initiated the “Be That One Guy” training program to teach how to handle disrespect and harassment on jobsites. O’Leary’s motivation was the “senseless murder of Ms. Outi Hicks, a carpenter apprentice that was murdered on the job” in Fresno, CA. O’Leary asserts “no one should experience bullying, harassment and intimidation in their workplace”.

In 2020, Engineering News-Record named O’Leary a Top 25 Newsmaker and the 2019 recipient of the Award of Excellence for her cause of diversity and respect. O’Leary describes her reaction as being “completely humbled that I was recognized for bringing to fruition a process to improve the behaviors that most tradeswomen have endured on jobsites”.  To O’Leary, however, this occasion was bittersweet: “I am also reminded that on the biggest accomplishment of my life (other than my son Hayden), my parents were not able to attend the ENR Award of Excellence gala. My mother was battling breast cancer and had to be very careful and not be in large crowds due to chemotherapy”.

O’Leary is an accomplished leader known for getting things done and for taking care of others along the way.  She has openly shared the impact of her mother’s breast cancer illness and of losing her mother.  Vicki is one of the strongest professionals I’ve met, male or female. She offered to share her story in the hope that it would help one person struggling with a chronic disease to find hope and to make today or tomorrow a better day for that person. As leadership guru Brene Brown shares, “vulnerability is the core, the heart, the center, of meaningful human experiences.”

O’Leary’s mother was initially diagnosed with Stage 4 breast cancer. Her mother survived for 15 years after that diagnosis. Below are her words:

My mom, Mary Ridgley, had her mammogram in November 2004 and everything was good.  She found the lump when she was in Chicago visiting me in March 2005.  She said she would get it looked at as soon as she got home. Within a month she was having a mastectomy.  Her surgery was done April 22, 2005. That was my son’s 13th birthday.  I missed the birthday my son became a teenager.  We celebrated before I flew down to Arkansas to be with my mother, but it just wasn’t the same.

Life as we knew it was forever changed.  Chemo started shortly after the mastectomy.  I went back to Arkansas for Memorial Weekend.  My mom asked me to shave her hair off her head.  She said it was falling out in the shower and she just wanted it gone.  I fought so hard to not cry.  She was a warrior going to war with cancer.  Little did we all know that this war was going to be battled off and on for 15 years.

O’Leary shared how a loved one’s chronic illness affects your own mental health and overall wellbeing as a survivor: “I travel a lot for work.  I normally called my folks every couple of days when I had some time to talk. When my phone would ring, and I would see the caller ID and my heart would sink.  I knew my mom was back in the hospital.  There were many times when I stopped everything and got on a plane to Arkansas.  Making plans was hard.  The guilt was hard.  The fear was hard.  Watching the strongest woman, I have ever known slowly diminish was gut wrenching”.

What strategies did you use to grieve when you realized your mother was going to pass away? 

I used the strategies I use when I do not know what to do. I cooked, cleaned, did laundry, went to the market for my parents. In other words, I stayed busy.  I was pragmatic. I cried in solitude – whether in my car or in my childhood bedroom.  On rare occasions I reached out to friends.  I found through this that I need to internalize my thoughts and feelings and deal with them prior to reaching out to others. 

What kind of emotional support and “physical” help did you receive from friends, coworkers, and neighbors while your mother was ill or after she passed away? 

  • Phone calls and texts with supportive memes
  • Having a General President (of the union) who understood that I needed to work from my parents’ home
  • Cards, letters, and emails
  • Flowers
  • Nights out/lunch with friends

How did that support make you feel and what impact did it have on you? 

I have to say that I felt loved during all of this.  This ride with my mom and cancer was so long and you would think that people would get tired of hearing that my mom was in the hospital or that she wasn’t doing well.  The people in my life were always there. Family, friends, and co-workers never wavered in their support.

Do you have tips you wish to share for taking time to grieve when you have career/work and family responsibilities?

This journey is one day at a time.  Some days I am great and other days my grief comes in waves.  I am still experiencing my firsts.  My first Mother’s Day without my mom, my first birthday that I didn’t get a call and card, my mom’s first birthday that I didn’t buy her something.  I still have the first Thanksgiving and the first Christmas to deal with.  These are not easy.  I am spending as much with my dad as I can.  When I am with him is when I feel the closest to my mom and her memory. My dad has gone with me on a few business trips.  Now it’s my turn to show him off.   


Author’s note: Vicki O’Leary shared her story to encourage other women to do as she does and schedule regular screenings. She specifically asked me to share information about the gaps in screening to call attention for women to make the commitment and time for their health and wellbeing to get screened regularly. Reach Vicki O’Leary at     

Breast cancer screening rates have remained relatively stable over the past decade. According to KFF, disparity exists in screening rates for women reporting mammograms within the past two years between those with versus without insurance coverage. Specifically, KFF reports “in 2015, only 30% of uninsured women ages 40 to 64 reported having had a mammogram in the past two years compared to 72% of privately insured women and 58% of women with Medicaid coverage”.


Cited Resources:

KFF. (September 26, 2019). Coverage of Breast Cancer Screening and Prevention Services.


Additional Resources:

American Cancer Society. Breast Cancer Research Highlights.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (CDC). September 21, 2021. Breast Cancer Awareness. English and Spanish.

National Breast Cancer Foundation, Inc. Obtain free educational e-books to learn about detection, treatment, and how to address physical and emotional needs:

Susan G. Komen. Barriers to Breast Cancer Screening.

Susan G. Komen. Social Support and Support Groups.