Jessica Diagnosed at 34
My husband Gerry and I had just returned from a wonderful weekend in San Diego. We were taking our “Babymoon,” our last weekend getaway as a couple before our beautiful daughter Juliette would join us to make a family of three. We were busy researching cribs, attending birth classes, and focusing on the joy of the little life growing inside me. Little did we know there was something else growing inside me at the same time: breast cancer.
I was roughly thirty-six weeks along in my pregnancy when I started feeling a large lump in my right breast. I thought surely this must be a clogged milk duct or something to do with the pregnancy so that week I had my midwife check it out. That is when the terrifying roller coaster ride began. I was quickly rushed to see an oncologist who scheduled me to have an ultrasound done on the breast to see if they could tell what it was. I still had in my mind that it was nothing, just something weird that popped up. I went to the ultrasound clinic and they spotted some light spots, which then lead them to want to do a mammogram. I was terrified, not for myself but for the precious baby inside. I was so nervous to expose her to the radiation. I went outside and called my husband while in tears. He said just get it done, the baby will be fine, we have to find out what this thing is.
So they double lead-aproned me and assured me the baby would be fine. I was then referred to a breast surgeon who would look over my images. She was convinced it was something other than cancer, but wanted to do a biopsy just in case. Again I spiraled into fear thinking of what sedation etc. could do to my growing baby. Mind you, I was very careful and anal through my whole pregnancy: organic food, no chemicals in anything I put on my body, doing prenatal yoga twice a week etc.…. doing everything right! The thought of undergoing a medical procedure while the baby was inside me was terrifying. At thirty-seven weeks and only 34 years old there I was getting this 6cm thing inside my breast biopsied. The baby was monitored the entire time. Just before the surgery I saw her on the ultrasound sucking her thumb, she was just as nervous as I was.
Even after the biopsy the doctor said, “it doesn’t look like cancer, but we will wait to see what the lab says”. I got the call on a Monday morning. I was getting ready for work. I took the call and my doctor said those words: “It’s cancer.”
I was in shock for a moment and my husband sat by my side and watched as my face turned pale. The doctor started babbling on about what my options would be and what type it was but I couldn’t hear anything. I was numb. Then my thoughts shifted to the thousands of children I have worked with over the past twelve years.
I work at camp for children with chronic and life threatening illnesses. I have seen so many brave kids battle and live with medical conditions that could have easily taken them. I thought to myself, if these kids who I have worked with for so long can do this, so can I. I got off the phone and said to my husband, “don’t worry we can beat this”. We had to for our daughter. That was my turning point. In that moment I decided that I was not going to curl up in a ball and let this news take me or my family down. I finished getting dressed and went into work. There wasn’t much I could do about it at that moment.
I come from a family of very strong women. Getting through life’s crap is our specialty. Five years prior I watched my mother loose her battle with brain cancer just one month before my wedding day, so for me having life’s sweetest moments paired with some of life’s most sour was nothing new. I was devastated to have to think of cancer while I was preparing for the birth of my first child, but what choice did I have? I had to think of her and to fight so that I could be there for her.
Some of my doctors recommended taking the baby out at 38 weeks so we could take care of me, but I wanted a natural birth, wanted her to come out when she was ready. My breast surgeon assured me that the type of cancer I had (mostly DCIS, HER2 + and mildly estrogen receptive) could wait a few weeks, so I did. She even said I could try to breast feed with the other breast for about a month after she was born and then do the mastectomy.
So we waited, and waited and waited, and finally at 42 weeks we had to force Juliette into this world. I don’t blame her, all that stress and craziness she was feeling from me in the last weeks must have terrified her too. I would constantly tell her when she was inside me, “don’t worry the world is a great place and this is just something mommy is going through, it is ok to come out! “ I had two options: I could do a lumpectomy while the baby was inside me and then start radiation immediately after she was born, or wait for the baby to be born and for my breast milk to dry up and then do a mastectomy with immediate reconstruction. So I chose the later because the size of the tumor was so large it would have left me pretty disfigured, plus I couldn’t imagine dragging myself to radiation everyday after the baby was born.
Our beautiful, perfect, baby girl was born on September 2, 2009. After a 22-hour labor with no drugs she had finally entered the world. We were so focused on her that the cancer seemed to be secondary. Once I knew she was ok I felt a huge sense of relief. I was just so grateful that she as ok. One month after she was born they took my right breast. I couldn’t lift or carry the baby for about a month, so we had lots of family members fly out to help us through this next chapter. It was hard to focus on my health while caring for a newborn at the same time, but I had to lean on others to get us all through.
Through this process I became so eternally grateful for the outpouring of help, prayers, notes, care packages, and love that came our way. The world became rose colored to me. Each moment was precious, I began to savor the smallest moments and value them above everything else. It taught me very quickly what is important in the world. All the garbage I typically obsessed about quickly melted away and what was left was our life in its raw form.
Full of love, full of the miracle of our daughter, full of the outpouring of kindness from our family and friends. In what could have been a very ugly experience, we found such beauty.
About a month after the mastectomy the labs came back and they found .4mm spec of invasive cancer. The lymph nodes were clear which meant the chances that it had spread outside the breast were slim, but the fact that they found a spec of invasive meant that chemotherapy was now on the table. Again I climbed aboard the roller coaster of terror. I had always lived my life in a very natural way, vegetarian for nine years, no chemical in cosmetic products etc.… organic food, using homeopathic remedies for colds, etc.… I had never had surgery, barely gone to the doctors outside of routine physicals, lead an active lifestyle, so the thought of putting chemotherapy into my body was really scary. We met with the Oncologist shortly after the labs came back. He explained to me that since my tumor was so aggressive and so large and I was so young that we had to attack this thing so that it wouldn’t take my life.
On the plus side my tumor was HER+, which meant they knew how to go after it, and had a drug that would mark it’s cells and attack it. We talked it over and my husband and I both decided to take the aggressive approach. We were not going to let this crap beat us. Terrified again! I keep using that word over and over, but it is the only word that describes what I was feeling. I started researching everything, what the treatments options were, side effects of the drugs, alternate therapies etc.… uggh I felt like I was going through medical school. I find that the more information I arm myself with the less anxiety I have. That is the thing with cancer; there is not just one option or one course of treatment. They give you choices, but they are not sure any one of them is better than the others, so they let you decide, no pressure right!
I was to begin my first treatment on December 5, so before heading into the lions’ den I needed to see what this was really going to be like. I needed to hear from others going down the same path, so I found a support group and went to my first meeting. The group was comprised of about eight women, most in their late fifties or early sixties (which is typical with breast cancer) and two other young women like myself. I quickly gravitated to the younger women of course, my thoughts and concerns and even my diagnosis was a bit different from the older women. We chatted about the side effects of the treatments, the anxiety around reoccurrence, and then shed some tears. I was able to ask a lot of questions and get some great advice. I remember journaling the night before and I wrote as I prayed, “Dear God please send me strength to get through this. Please send me someone I can identify with that will help me get over this mountain.”
As I was leaving the meeting the two younger women of the group pulled me aside and invited me lunch. They said we usually get together after these meetings so we can just hang out as well and we would like for you to join us. I couldn’t go that day but promised I would next time. Just before leaving one of the girls (Julie Olsen) handed me a pink bracelet that said “strength” on it. I knew God had put these two amazing ladies right in front of me to show me the way. Thank God for answered prayers. So after one biopsy, one natural childbirth, one mastectomy, six rounds of chemo, a year of reconstructing the breast, and one year of a drug called Herceptin I am cancer free! It was the one of the hardest years of my life.
There were days when I would just lay on the floor and cry right along with my five month old daughter because that is all the energy I had. There were other days when we laid in the grass at the park and laughed and played and soaked up all the wonderful things life had to give, and in the end we did it! We made it through that frightful year and for that I have to thank my adoring rock of a husband, my gorgeous daughter whose smile kept me from sinking into a hole of depression, my amazing family and friends, the kids with whom I worked with that showed me how to fight and my breast cancer sisters Julie and Tira who were heaven sent and with me every step of the way.
I often get emails or calls from friends who have someone else they know who is about to go down a similar path so I have developed some tip sheets to send out as well as some encouraging words. I remember someone saying to me at support group, it is not easy but it is manageable, you can do it. It may suck at times, but there is an end in sight. It’s funny I look back now and it is hard to believe I went through all of that. But I am stronger, better informed about the food I eat and the way I live my life, more empathetic and understanding of the population of children and families I work with, and most of all I don’t get caught up in the minutia of life. I focus on each day and the blessing that it brings. Life certainly goes on.
In September 2013 we welcomed another baby into our family. Something we were not even sure would be possible after the treatments. One of my doctors said I would be crazy to get pregnant again and some of my doctors disagreed. But my Oncologist told me early on that I had to live my life. There are no guarantees with cancer right now, so live your life, set goals, have another child… So again as terrifying as it is, I decided to trust in God, trust in life and live in life not in fear. Here is to taking chances, to defying the odds, to living YOUR life.