Get the latest from TODAY

Sign up for our newsletter
/ Source: TODAY
By Donna Freydkin

Families come in many forms. And in the case of Heather Salazar and her husband Steve, theirs was created in one of the most unexpected, and unexpectedly life-saving, ways possible.

In June 2002, Ohio-based mom of three Heather Salazar got full custody of a baby named Lexi, whose mother was, at age 23, battling stage IV breast cancer. She was a stranger to Salazar and her husband Steve, yet they met her and agreed to adopt her baby daughter, who joined the Salazars' three biological children. Lexi's mom had no support system around her, and took public transportation to get to her treatments. Salazar opted to help.

"I thought I had my life all figured out. I was 28 years old, happily married, three awesome kids and then I met an amazing young lady that changed my life and my family's life forever," she says.

Says Steve Salazar of Lexi's mom Alexis: "Her main concern was her baby girl and taking care of her. And she wanted to make sure that someone loved her as much as they possibly could."

So far, so great. But shortly after Lexi's mom died from breast cancer, Heather Salazar felt a lump in her breast during a self-exam and got the news: she, too, had breast cancer.

"I was just dumbfounded. I was so angry," says Heather Salazar. "It turns out that I had the exact same aggressive breast cancer that Alexis had. I was very fortunate that it was stage one and I responded well to treatment."

She was one of the lucky ones, whose cancer responded to treatment. She's now cancer-free and is the CEO of the non-profit Pink Ribbon Girls. And she credits Lexi for saving her life: without knowing that someone as young as Lexi's mom could die from breast cancer, she wouldn't have checked her own breasts and found that lump.

"I always say Lexi's mom was my angel, because had it not been for her, I would have never done a self-breast exam. I mean, I really believe she saved my life," says Salazar.