Thursday, March 19, 2009

Jessica's Story

I was 28 when I was diagnosed with breast cancer in December 2006. I had a routine breast exam as part of my annual check-up. Although she told me that I had nothing to worry about, my primary care physician recommended a follow-up ultrasound and mammogram.

As it turned out, I had a lot to worry about. Two days after Christmas I learned my biopsy results: cancer. Less than two months later, I received another blow. The pathology report from my mastectomy indicated invasive ductal carcinoma. Not only had I lost my breast but I was going to lose my hair as well. 17 days after my first chemotherapy infusion (which landed me back in the hospital because I got so ill), my long straight hair started to fall out in clumps and my now-husband, Michael, found me crying on the bathroom floor.

But we pulled it together and didn’t miss a beat. We drove to a salon that sees women undergoing chemotherapy and got our heads shaved bald. The process was strangely empowering at a time when I had little control over anything else. From that day forward, at least outside the office, my preferred head covering was nothing. . . just my shiny bald head.

In the week before my last infusion in June 2007, two things happened. Michael proposed to me, and I accepted. And, along with 8 supportive friends, I walked the Komen Race for the Cure to celebrate the end of my treatment and our successful efforts to raise over $20,000 to support Komen. I was proud of my efforts, but all of those signs on race day – “in loving memory,” “we miss you mom” – were too much for me. I tried a support group, but the stories of my fellow patients and survivors’ diagnoses, treatments and prognoses scared and overwhelmed me. The support group setting was right for some people but not for me.

Six months later, I found what I needed when I joined the cancer to 5K program, a UCF-supported training program that helps young adult cancer survivors prepare for a 5k road race. My fellow runners and I shared a struggle and a goal but we didn’t talk much about cancer while we were running. We talked about life, and work, and weekend plans. With them, I ran a 5k and then a 7-miler, and today, I am training for a half marathon with Team in Training. I have taken control of my physical fitness, and along with my improved physical health have come the confidence and emotional security that I needed.

I also learned that I didn’t want to avoid cancer patients and survivors as I initially thought. I simply wanted their companionship in a different setting. With that in mind, I wrote to UCF in the hopes that I could find another “quiet survivor.” UCF and Imerman Angels paired me with a breast cancer survivor in Chicago who is my age, with my same diagnosis and treatment, who has a professional career, and who is planning a wedding to the man who saw her through diagnosis and treatment. We email each other our stories and together, we are dedicated to living healthy and happy post-cancer lives.

But I will admit that a breast cancer diagnosis at 28 was shattering. Even for a fairly confident woman whose notions of self worth are not wrapped up in body image, losing a breast was traumatic. More than at any other age, I wanted to feel and look pretty. But after my surgery, my clothes didn’t fit quite right; they pulled to one side. I became self-conscious in the gym locker room. I felt that people on the street could look at me and tell that I was disfigured under my layers of clothing, or that they could see that my implant was larger than my natural breast. I would glance around a crowded bar or restaurant and think to myself: I’m all alone. These people have no idea what I’ve been through.

Because of my age, I also confronted issues of fertility. My doctors couldn’t tell me whether I would be able to have children after chemotherapy (I have since met many woman who have conceived after treatment). Although I didn’t want children at the time, I also didn’t want cancer to make this important life decision for me. So I consulted a fertility specialist about harvesting eggs. But in the end, I couldn’t bear the thought of injecting myself with the very hormones that fueled the growth of my hormone-receptive cancer. And, I couldn’t fathom delaying my chemotherapy to do it. So, I decided to take the risk that I might not be able to naturally or otherwise conceive. Michael was fully supportive, and I am thankful for that.

At a time in my life when everything should have been moving forward with an eye toward the future, my life plans came to a screaming halt. But despite cancer, Michael and I married in September, and I turned 31 in February.

My hopes for my 31st year? (1) no more cancer, (2) complete a sprint-distance triathlon.
Jessica Tanner
Breast Cancer Survivor

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