Fight Like a Girl

Cancer, Chemo, and Covid.

Breaking Chains in the Fight against Breast Cancer.

 

Cancer. That one short word capable of unleashing so many powerful emotions in one single split second. Life temporarily stops for a moment and then...it changes forever.

It can cause time to stand still and turn the world upside down as soon as you hear the dreaded words “its cancer”.

That is exactly what happened to me on the morning of January 27, 2020.

Just a week prior to that morning, my husband Rob and I, along with friends, had embarked on a dream and “bucket list” destination vacation to Negril, Jamaica. It was our first couple’s only trip since we got married in December 1996, as we always went to the beach with our children each year. My brother and sister-in-law planned this trip and we were finally joining them and other friends after years of them urging us to go. The ironic part of this story is that just a little over a month before the trip; my brother-in-law became very ill and spent several weeks in the hospital. As the days went on it was apparent that he was not going to be able to go. Rob and I were adamant that we would not go without them. Steve and his wife Janet would not hear of it - emphasizing that this trip was not to be missed and that we had to go. He emphasized that life was too short and “you never know if you will have another chance.”  How little did I know at that time how right he truly was.

I had postponed my yearly mammogram until we got back and was already overdue by about four months. Upon arriving to my appointment and filling out the same paper work, I had done for the past decade or more, I texted a quick I love you to my husband, then a text to my mom, which is, pretty much an everyday occurrence.

Me: Morning Mom! It is Mammo Monday!

Mom: Morning sweetie! Ugh - not fun! However, so important and necessary!

I went in the familiar room for my mammogram, which never really worked well for me because I have extremely dense breast tissue, which makes it very difficult to get clear imaging. My technician asked if I had any changes, and I informed her that I had noticed a small dimple on my right breast. They moved me to another room for additional imaging, a 3-D mammogram and an ultrasound. The process seemed like it took forever that morning and I just had a feeling something was not quite right. I have had that feeling before though, and everything ended up being fine. However, today felt just a little different. Once finished, they showed me to the consult room as I was meeting with the doctor to discuss my results. The news was delivered quickly and matter of fact – that I had a very large mass that did not look good and it appeared to be cancer. I needed to take care of this right away and that I needed to schedule a biopsy ASAP, the next day if possible. And, that was that. I was stunned. I was shocked. I was in disbelief. Tears flowed freely. I believe I asked are you sure? I know I said I come every year. I do what I am supposed to do – how can this be? I am healthy! I eat right – I work out. HOW CAN THIS BE?

I gathered my things, wondering if I could even get up from my chair, to make my way out. Just get to the car I thought to myself. I remember walking out and the cold air hitting my face, and the light just seemed so bright, almost blinding. I felt as if life at that moment was in slow motion. I could hear everything around me so vividly, so clear– the cars driving by, a bird chirping, and the air was so still, like everything had stopped. My legs felt heavy as I finally made my way to my car. I sat in the driver’s seat for what seemed like a very long time, just staring out the window. I knew what I needed to do but I did not want to. Not at all. I held my phone in my hand as I thought to myself, how in the world am I supposed to tell my family this news? I was more worried about them than I was about myself. I did not want to worry them, scare them. 

First, with shaking hands and literally my entire body shaking, I dialed my husband Rob; he knew something was wrong as soon as he heard my voice. I said, “It’s cancer, I have breast cancer.”  I could hear his fear and emotion as he spoke and asked me questions. However, at the same time I could hear his love, support and reassurance. I knew “my rock” was going to be there for me in any and every way I would need him. Together we would get through this.

Next, my mom. Our fun-loving texts from earlier had taken a turn. No one in our immediate family has ever had cancer. We had always said how blessed we were to all be so healthy. Again, when mom answered she knew something was wrong right away. We cried together. She would contact my two younger sisters for me.

My final call was to my boss who is also one of my very best friends. She is a woman who I have always looked up to and been able to confide in and trust - and it was another very difficult call to make. She was just as she always is, calm, reassuring, and supportive.

My children. I could not call them. I did not even want to tell them. Ever. I needed to think about how I was going to do that.

Ironically, on my way, I passed our son Matt as he was driving to his apartment. I turned my car around and followed him there, as I knew I needed to tell him, but only what I knew so far, just the facts, and in person. I kept it light and reassured him I would be fine. Telling your child that news is unimaginable.  We hugged and I promised to let him know everything each step along the way.

I still had my daughter Emily to talk to later on that day. It ended up that I would not see her for a few days, so I ended up sharing the news over a phone call, again, gently and lightly. At that point, I began to tell myself maybe this news was all wrong. The biopsy could prove that. We would wait and see and I would hope and pray for the best possible outcome. The biopsy was scheduled for the next day, and was told the results could take anywhere from five to eight days. I received a call on day nine.

Rob and I went in, hand-in-hand; to receive the news that I already knew to be true.

I HAD BREAST CANCER.

Looking back now, I walked out of that appointment with a renewed and clear mindset. I was not sad or scared or crying, rather I was ready to tackle this monster head on with strength, courage, and as much knowledge as possible. I immediately set into fighter mode and began researching, reaching out, and making a plan. My life depended on it.

After my consultation with a surgeon, I left with a large to do list. Many things had to happen in order to decide the best course of treatment, as each type of breast cancer is very different and treatment modalities are individualized. My diagnoses was Invasive Lobular Carcinoma, which is classified as the second most common type of breast cancer in women, accounting for about 10% of all new cases each year. It is a “sneaky” breast cancer, as I could not feel a lump and it does not readily show in a traditional mammogram. My only tiny little warning sign was that slight dimple in my skin. Unbeknownst to me, that was the tumor pulling on my skin while it grew in size silently within me.

The month of February 2020 was a whirlwind. Genetics counseling and testing; MRI and ultrasound; additional biopsies; port placement; and an Echocardiogram to make sure my heart was strong enough for chemotherapy. It was also during this time that I met with my oncologist. He and his amazing team would be in charge of my chemotherapy treatments, which would take place prior to my surgery with the hopes to shrink the tumor. He made me feel at ease and he had a good sense of humor, which made this big scary thing seem just a little bit less stressful.  I would begin a rigorous five months and 16 treatments of chemotherapy on March 4, 2020.

My husband and sister came to my first treatment with me but then COVID put a stop to all visitors after that one, so I was on my own. My husband would drive me down and wait for me in the car during my five hour treatments. Chemo was my only outing as my immune system was dangerously low the entire time so I was to stay home and not have visitors.  

Upon starting chemo, I was ready both physically and mentally. I have always taken good care of myself eating as healthy as I can and working out regularly. In addition to my full-time job, I am a personal trainer and health coach and train clients in my garage gym and teach HIIT classes to a wonderful group of people at the Avilton Community Center. Motivating others to lead a healthy lifestyle, see them reach their goals and accomplish things they never thought possible is my passion and is extremely rewarding. The women I trained in my gym and classes would soon become a small army of warriors cheering me on and continuing their pursuit of fitness as I pursued my treatment. It was both uplifting and motivating.    

My team of providers - one after another –told me that because I was going into this healthy and strong, it would help me get through it better. They were right. Although I experienced some very strong side-effects from chemo, I reminded myself day in and day out – YOU GOT THIS JEN! YOU CAN DO IT! I decided early on that my treatment was just like a running race or triathlon that I used to compete in regularly. They were hard too – and sometimes I did not think I could do it – but I did.  My medal after this race - as I prayed for daily - was to be cancer-free once this was all finished. That would be the best prize ever and so worth fighting for!  

On those days when I felt my absolute worst, something always made me smile: a call from family; a card in the mail from a friend; a surprise package in the mail; ice cream; my Chihuahua Chloe who never left my side; my husband shaving his head when I lost all my hair; a random kitchen dance party; fresh produce left on my deck; my favorite song; a beautiful sunset….and so many more million little things.

COVID prohibited hugs and family time, so that made some days incredibly difficult. Not hugging your loved ones for more than five months is hard! But again, I reminded myself this would not last forever and those hugs and being close to those I love again would make it all the better and so worth the wait.

I pushed myself to continue to work out regularly throughout chemo. Even though I did not always feel like it, I knew that it would keep me strong physically - and mentally and I felt like I was kicking cancer’s butt just a little bit extra!  Emotions ran the gamut throughout treatment and my trusty punching bag took a hefty beating some days!

When my children were little, we always made paper chains for the month of December to count down the days until Christmas. I decided to make myself a pink paper chain to countdown chemo treatments. It became a weekly ritual to come home and break a chain after each treatment! It felt liberating and gave us all a constant visual of the progress and countdown to the end of treatment.

That day finally arrived and on July 20, I had reached the finish line of NO MORE CHEMO!  A tradition upon finishing chemo is to ring a bell to declare and celebrate that “last one”.  However, because of COVID-19, they had removed the bell to reduce risk of spreading germs, so this anticipated milestone would not be a part of my journey…or so I thought!   

Upon arriving home, my family had secretly planned a welcome home surprise to include inspiring signs along my road like “you did it” “fight like a girl” and “warrior woman”; balloons, dinner, dessert, and a BELL! We cried tears of joy and happiness, caught up on months of being apart; I broke my last chain, and I RANG THAT BELL!

My journey is not yet over, as both surgery and the possibility of radiation are in the future. Getting through chemo was a huge part of the race. I will continue to fight this fight with grace, courage, and a much deeper appreciation for all this beautiful life has to offer. 

One of my all time-ever-favorite quotes is “You can't stop the waves, but you can learn to surf” by Jon Kabat-Zinn.  Life is what we make it in the good times and the bad times! If cancer has taught me anything, it is don’t wait and don’t worry! Be yourself – love life – have fun – laugh a lot – be silly - crank up some music and dance – and FIGHT LIKE A GIRL!

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