"They did what I would expect," Jennifer recalls. "They saw some cells, but they were not clustered. ‘It’s probably a plugged milk duct,’ they told me, ‘come back in six months.'"
But the lump continued to grow, and she went to her OB in April (just three months later).
"I was supposed to have a pap smear that day, but I had my OB check my lump. I had all three kids with me, and my doctor just sat down and had this look on her face. She said 'We just need to pray.' I asked, “What are you saying?” 'I don't like how this feels,'" she said. Her doctor expedited paperwork and got her a mammogram the following day.
In the three months since her last mammogram, the mass had spread into her lymph nodes. Jennifer got to see the mass on the ultrasound. "It was giant," she says. "The doctor said, ‘I don't know if you're the praying type.’” She was, but her head was not quiet enough for prayer yet.
"I composed myself on the way out of the office," says Jennifer, "then I got to my car and I started crying so hard I was hyperventilating. I called my mom first. I was absolutely hysterical." A friend came to pick her up.
"My oncologist was very upfront about my treatment plan, and when I saw that my treatment would be done in four months, I thought, “OK, at least I'll live for another four months”. But what was going through my mind was 'My kids aren’t going to have a mom. Nobody is going to love them like I love them’. I knew my husband would have support, but I was most scared my kids wouldn’t get to know me. ‘I have three babies. Do you get this? I can’t die!’ My attitude had to change. I didn't have a choice but to say, 'Well, lace up the combat boots...let's fight this thing.' After a biopsy, they were able to diagnose me with invasive ductal carcinoma; I was between a stage 2d to 3a. At the time of the surgery I had four positive nodes."
Jennifer says the support of her family and friends, and her children’s daily three hour nap (a miracle in itself) made her 16 weeks of chemotherapy tolerable. She went to appointments as they slept so she would disrupt their lives as little as possible. But they knew 'mommy's breasts were sick.'
Although she says she was ready to "just get rid of them" as soon as her diagnosis, Jennifer waited until three weeks after her final chemo treatment to get a double mastectomy.
"But there were still scattered microscopic cells within the tissue...that meant radiation after the mastectomy."
Then, ten days after the radiation, in November 2008, because of a history of ovarian cancer in her family and the acute fear of re-occurrence, Jennifer had a total hysterectomy.
She says her family and friends came from all over the state, Pennsylvania, Texas and Hawaii.
"People flooded me with support. I always had somebody with me at chemo; our church family would bring meals. People I didn’t even know where making us dinners and cards. There was an outpouring of love from my family, and for my husband…it was humbling and it was overwhelming. There's not enough gratitude to describe how thankful we are."
After Jennifer was finished with treatment and declared cancer-free, "That's when it hit me like a ton of bricks. I didn't really have time to be introspective, so that's when the identity crisis came. My hair was growing back, I was very self-conscious, was wearing very big clothes. I didn't know how not having breasts had affected my sense of femininity. I was seeing how the repercussions had affected my entire being."
My husband is so amazing," says Jennifer. "Can you imagine? I had a hysterectomy; I had no breasts; no sex drive. And he just said, ‘Honey, I love you. We'll deal with it. It is what it is.’"
Jennifer is now having her breasts reconstructed by a specialist in Portland. "This symbolizes that I am accepting my survivorship. I’m done. The cancer hasn't changed the way I look anymore. I feel more like myself. I'm wearing the clothes I used to wear. I exercise; I feel good."
Jennifer, now just 37 years old, will have ongoing PET scans and bone density tests, and (because her hysterectomy makes her 'post-menopausal') will take Femara, an Aromatase inhibitor that helps to prevent estrogen growth, for the next five years.
She has just started back at work as an OR nurse, and she says she's found a new connection to patients. "I have a lot more compassion," she says. "There's an understanding; everybody has their own struggles, whether its cancer, or broken bones, you have to appreciate that."
"When people say, 'How are you?' I say ' Life is better.’ It used to be 'I have cancer.' There's a moment where I think about it every day, but I feel strong; I feel healthy, feel blessed. You can’t give up, you can’t give in, and you just keep going."