Business owner. Wife, mother and grandmother.
Two-time cancer survivor.
Linda Uliana holds those titles, but family, friends and employees most identify her as something else: a fighter.
Uliana is president and owner of Leiser’s Sales and Rental, a family business her late father began in Bethlehem about 65 years ago, a place where she built many childhood memories, and a place that she now goes to each day when she can – just to feel normal.
Since 2011, Uliana fought and won back-to-back bouts against ovarian and breast cancer and now is fighting a recurrence of ovarian cancer, resulting in multiple surgeries, horrid side effects from chemotherapy and a loss of quality time with loved ones.
Uliana’s illnesses have forced her out of work – sometimes for four weeks at a time – leaving her with an unending desire to be a part of the daily routine of the family business.
“When I am here at work, it’s an ordinary life,” Uliana, 58, said of her business, which rents nearly 6,000 items, including party and wedding supplies, tools and heavy equipment. “Laying down and resting makes me feel like a sick person.”
Uliana goes to work on days when she is not at the chemotherapy clinic, or when she feels strong enough. It’s her way to maintain her father’s legacy and commitment to his business and to the community.
Although her doctors encouraged her to apply for disability benefits through Social Security, in preparation for how strong the chemotherapy treatment and length of recovery time would be, Uliana declined.
“I did not want to do that,” she said. “I knew it would put me at a place I didn’t want to be.”
Uliana continues to lean on the shoulders of her family and friends, who have become her advocates in the battle.
“It’s more important that I am here at work,” she said. “Sometimes you need to fight for something to be able to appreciate it more.”
Uliana said Leiser’s grosses $1 million a year in sales, but the business means more to her than dollars.
“This business is not just about making money,” she said. “We are providing a service to the community; we are not saving lives, but we are saving someone’s party or relieving a little stress from their lives.”
Uliana’s father, Don Leiser, started Leiser’s Sales and Rental in 1948 in a building in front of their Bethlehem family home. Today, the business sits on a seven-acre lot on Nazareth Pike in Bethlehem Township.
Leiser was a handyman by trade and also knew a lot about gardening and landscaping. He bought a lawn mower, chainsaw and tiller and began doing odd jobs for people in the community, including gardening, tree trimming and building garages.
When he wasn’t using the equipment, Leiser allowed community members to rent them. Once Leiser realized that most people could not afford to buy their own equipment and tools, he bought whatever his customers needed to rent.
“I remember opening a box in the store one day and there was a clown suit in it,” Uliana said. “I said to my dad, ‘Dad, please tell me you didn’t go out and buy this.’ ”
He did, of course.
And if people needed tables and chairs for a party, Don Leiser would buy those, too.
“He was a hard worker and had this idea to get ahead,” Uliana said. “He had very little to go by, but he prided himself in his business.”
Typically a healthy and athletic person for most of her life, Uliana began experiencing unusual bloating and abdominal pain in 2011.
Uliana said her family physician originally thought she might have diverticulitis, an inflammation or infection of the inner lining of a person’s intestine that typically is treated with antibiotics.
Her symptoms continued to persist, so Uliana’s doctor sent her to a specialist who ordered a CT scan.
The test results were a surprise, revealing ovaries the size of oranges and filled with cancerous tumors. Uliana’s prognosis came with only a 10 percent survival rate, as the cancer had already passed the third stage.
After several surgeries and a complete hysterectomy, Uliana underwent a long recovery which included five months of chemotherapy. Eventually, she became strong enough to return to work a few days at a time.
Uliana credits the trust she has in her employees, as they helped to ease some of the stress of having to miss work for surgeries, recoveries and chemotherapy treatments.
“We pulled together quite well while missing an extra set of hands,” said Leslie Touchton, party consultant for Leiser’s and an employee of the company for 24 years. “I admired Linda even before her cancer, and I have no doubt that she will continue to be strong.”
Uliana’s staff, family and friends even organized a welcome-back party for her, complete with balloons and hot dogs.
“You can’t micromanage everything,” Uliana said. “You may not always like the decisions your employees make, but when they make them, it makes them stronger.”
Just when she thought she had won the battle, Uliana was diagnosed with breast cancer in May 2012, only three months after her final chemotherapy treatment for ovarian cancer.
Uliana again underwent multiple surgeries, including a complete mastectomy and reconstruction, and endured lengthy chemotherapy treatment, until once again regaining her strength.
But in spring 2013 she developed a recurrence of ovarian cancer. The ovarian cancer had by this time spread throughout her body, and only a portion of it could be removed surgically.
Today, Uliana lives with ovarian cancer, undergoing intense chemotherapy treatment every three weeks.
Uliana’s son, Robert, is vice president of Leiser’s and plays a big role in helping to keep the business going during his mother’s treatments and surgeries, working to limit unnecessary work-related worries that she might have.
“There are no real words for what she has been through,” Robert Uliana said. “I am just in awe that she is so strong and optimistic.”
Linda Uliana oversees a staff of nine full-time and three seasonal employees, along with a vast inventory of items for rent and sale.
The company provides anything from party supplies, such as machines to make popcorn, cotton candy and snow cones, to heavy loaders, such as tractors, backhoes and excavators. The company also has an event section, which houses enough dinnerware to serve 500 people for weddings and parties, and provides tents big enough for a group of 300.
Uliana looks back now and knows that her personal struggles have had a positive effect on her as a business owner, as she now has a better relationship with her customers and employees.
“I have a deeper compassion for what is important to them,” she said. “And I need to honor that.”