Jackie R. Trusted Her Instincts to Fight Her Breast Cancer
"One of the Main Reasons I Tell My Story is so Younger Women are Aware It Can Happen Even When You are Young"
In March 2010 everything changed for Jackie.
She was getting ready for her final push to complete her PhD in genetics when she found a lump in her breast. She was just 28 and was told it was just a cyst and would go away. Even then – in the back of her mind – she thought maybe it was more than a cyst.
She had no real family history of breast cancer. Her grandmother was diagnosed when she was 78 and was treated with radiation. She is now cancer free and doing well at the age of 90. Jackie’s mother had been diagnosed with advanced colon cancer at 48, so Jackie was more concerned about her chances of getting colorectal cancer.
And it’s not like she was unaware of the issues; the area she was researching for her PhD was breast cancer.
When the lump didn't go away, Jackie went to her obstetrician-gynecologist and was quickly sent to the Jefferson-Honickman Breast Imaging Center to check the lump.
“I went by myself, thinking it was going to be a routine exam,” Jackie said.
“I was just shaking,” she said. “They didn’t have to tell me anything.”
While she was emotional, she composed herself enough to make some calls.
“By the time I was in biopsy, my sister had joined me,” she said. “By the time the biopsy was completed, my husband had arrived.”
It was a Tuesday. The results of the test were back on Thursday. It was cancer. Jackie had her first appointment with medical oncologist Rebecca J. Jaslow, MD, that Friday. Together, they developed a treatment plan: first chemotherapy, then surgery, then radiation if necessary and finally, reconstructive surgery.
She started setting up appointments, lots of appointments, including one with renowned breast surgeon Gordon F. Schwartz, MD, MBA, FACS. Another with plastic surgeon Steven E. Copit, MD, and one with radiation oncologist Pramila Rani Anne, MD. But it didn’t start or end there. There was the genetics consultation. A social worker who helped. And a breast care coordinator to guide her and orchestrate everything.
“They really pay attention to the issues of young women. They have experience with it. I just felt like I was in great hands.”
Within two weeks of her diagnosis, Jackie started chemotherapy. It would last for seven months, until the end of January. And the tumor responded to the treatments. It had shrunk. So Jackie had some options.
She could go for a breast-conserving surgery – a lumpectomy – or either a single or double mastectomy to remove one or both breasts. Genetic tests early on showed that Jackie didn’t have either of the known BRCA gene mutations, but Jackie with her genetics background remained concerned about the thousands of other potential gene mutations.
“To get cancer at such a young age … I thought in my own mind that I might have another mutation. I want to reduce the risk of another primary breast cancer.”
So Jackie chose a double mastectomy.
The surgery was at the end of February. She also had “tissue expanders” placed by Dr. Copit since she was going to need to get radiation therapy next. That started in May and lasted for five weeks with five treatments a week – 25 in all.
During the radiation she finished writing her PhD dissertation. She is now doing her postdoctoral research on pediatric brain tumors. And she is scheduled to have her reconstructive surgery in December.
“One of the main reasons I talk to people, tell my story, is so younger woman are aware it can happen even when you are young,” Jackie said.
She looks back and feels lucky that she noticed the lump. She was performing self exams relatively regularly, but it wasn’t something she was paying a lot of attention to. Even so, she identified the lump and she didn’t dismiss her gut feeling.
“I can trust myself,” she said. And to other women – especially other young women – she added, “trust your body, because you know when something is going wrong.”
Photo Courtesy of Josh Pelta-Heller of Koala Photography and Sudarshan Phani of Photo Squared