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Breast Cancer Survivor Demands a Cure

Jennifer Henry shares her moving story about the agony and heartache of breast cancer and the anniversary of starting chemo.

From Jennifer Henry:

In 2009 I was on top of the world. I had just purchased a house in Dublin, I was an attorney at a local law firm specializing in labor and employment matters for public entities (like school districts), and was serving an elected 4-year term on the Dublin Unified School District Governing Board. 

I was 36-years-old and single. My mother’s sister had died in the 1970’s of breast cancer, and so when I felt a lump I went in for a mammogram. I knew it was bad news when the staff at Nor Cal Imaging starting being overly kind and apologetic for making me wait to see a supervising doctor after they took my mammogram.  It was a Friday afternoon. 

The resident doctor interpreted my mammogram images as a textbook case of cancer. I looked at the x-ray image against the light box in her darkened room.  It was a series of white constellations connected to each other, glowing against a black background, and looked like a close-up image of the night sky.

In shock, the first thought that popped into my mind was that I had just paid for a trip to Hawaii with a friend, days before. 

“Will I still be able to go to Hawaii in a month?” I asked.

Right before closing, I drove to Danville to meet with my primary care physician. He had been informed that the only question I asked at Nor Cal Imaging was about vacationing in Hawaii. 

“This is serious,” he advised me.  “Breast cancer is sometimes fatal.” 

I did take it seriously, although the impact of it all did not hit me until later, when I sat weeping over my laptop as I emailed work that I had received serious medical news and would not be able to work for a while. 

My mind reeled with questions over whether I would still be able to work, who would take care of me, would I lose my house, would I still have health insurance, would I still be able to meet my soulmate and have children, after being ravaged by cancer and chemotherapy?

The next business day I met with Dr. Wynn who would be performing my mastectomy.  After looking at my mammogram slides he said it was a “spectacular” case in that the cancer was so big and easy to see. I was scheduled for a complete mastectomy of the right breast just a few days later.  Dr. Wynn listens to bluegrass music when he operates, and at my request put on the soundtrack to “O, Brother Where Art Thou?” 

I went into anesthesia just a few measures into “Man of Constant Sorrow.” Luckily, the cancer had not spread outside of my breast, although in pre-menopausal women doctors have to move quickly because breast cancer at that age is often “aggressive.” 

The several weeks I recuperated from the major surgery I was in a fog. I was in a lot of pain and had to frequently take pain medication, which admittedly doesn’t take away all of the pain but at least keeps you too dazed and sluggish to do anything active which might jeopardize the surgery and its stitches. I was grateful for the support of my mother and sister, who stayed with me and took care of me, even driving me to work because after mastectomy you can’t drive for at least a month. 

I am also grateful for the support of the community who sent me encouraging words and flowers, organized by friend Erlene DeMarcus (who is currently running for City Council in Pleasanton). 

I used Facebook as therapy, ranting about cancer and surgery, and later chemotherapy. I was able to go to Hawaii, just barely recovered enough to walk around and enjoy the sights.

As soon as I returned, it was the beginning of October, Breast Cancer Awareness Month, and I started chemotherapy. My chemo “cocktail,” ACT, was supposed to be kinder and gentler for 98% of the patients who get it. But I was in the unlucky 2% that suffered extreme sickness. 

I didn’t mind losing my hair. I shaved my head and dressed as Uncle Fester for Halloween (my favorite holiday). I didn’t mind not having to worry about shaving or waxing for several months. The rest of it is hazy. 

One of the favorite bumper stickers I’ve seen is “There are two things I hate about Chemo: 1. It makes me so sick.  2. I forget the other thing.”

I couldn’t work full time during the treatment so I became a part-time independent contractor. I was able to get on State Disability, which expires after one year and only pays 50% of your wages, but after the months-long bureaucratic nightmare of getting it approved, it was definitely a financial help. 

On the advice of many, I tried not to stress out about money or the future, because stress is believed to be a major factor in a reoccurrence.  Instead I tried to focus on recovering and getting well. This was difficult to do, especially when I fell behind in my monthly bills, got sued by two different credit card companies, audited by the IRS and was at risk of losing my home to foreclosure. 

As a result I had to dig through mountains of paperwork and unopened mail, at a time when I was too sick and tired to barely work a few hours a week.I found recovery and joy in the little things in life. I decided to not waste time watching tv shows that bummed me out (like “Breaking Bad”) and decided to watch only comedies. My mother paid a guy off of Craigslist to tear out the front lawn, since I was too sick to keep up with its maintenance.

I found joy slowly landscaping with drought resistant and native plants. I added a small fish pond in the back yard. I delighted in the baby chicks at the local feed store.

I adopted a dog, who was also disabled in that he is mostly deaf.  We taught each other basic sign language like “sit” and “no” and “potty?” 

I sat at my laptop at home and watched funny cat and dog videos on YouTube, and purchased a few humorous “breast cancer” t-shirt and bumper stickers.  (Such as “Yes, they’re fake – the real ones tried to kill me!”) I devoted time to creating an extreme Halloween display in my front yard area, and a fairly good display for Christmas as well, both popular with people walking or driving by.

After chemo ended, I tried to pick up the pieces of my life, including dating again, which I had not had much time to do while working full-time and being on the school board (which can be in itself a full-time albeit unpaid job, at times). 

Being in my late 30’s, with a part-time job and extremely short hair, and missing half of my chest (which, admittedly, is a substantial part of what defines our femininity), I had very little hope for finding my soulmate.  But, in the spring of 2011, I met my soulmate Jason through okcupid.com, and we married a year later in a joyous ceremony at my favorite local Polynesian restaurant, Trader Vic’s in Emeryville, on the water.

Planning a wedding on a shoestring budget was a little stressful. But I was starting to work full time again, still as an independent contractor, for a local Berkeley law firm. I was working out payment plans with the banks and medical institutions I owed money to.

I was able to get a loan modification on my mortgage to save my house from foreclosure, after a very long and needlessly traumatic process. Things were looking up. Then, a month after we returned from our honeymoon in Hawaii, another axe fell. 

The law firm that had been giving me full time work as an independent contractor for over a year, with whom I was hoping to be made a regular full-time employee, suffered a financial setback and cut back the hours and rate of pay of its independent contractors. 

Since I am the primary breadwinner in my marriage, I now have to worry about, not just finding a job that pays the bills, but finding a stable job with benefits for the long-term security of my partnership. It has been a very stressful time. 

I am behind in some important payments, and I used up all my savings while I was sick.  As a result, I haven’t been enjoying this Halloween season so far.  Because I am barely working, I am not buying any new Halloween decorations. 

I don’t know if I should even put up my annual “extreme Halloween display” on the front yard, because I don’t know if I will have to move to save money or to follow a good job soon. 

And I see the “Think Pink” signs everywhere that make me think of how miserable breast cancer and its barbaric surgeries and chemo treatments are, and of all of the sisters that have fallen. I used to love October because Halloween is my favorite time of year. Now I both love and hate October because on the one hand, it’s Halloween, but on the other hand, it is Breast Cancer Awareness month, and every October I relive the agony and heartache of breast cancer and the anniversary of starting chemo. 

One in six women get breast cancer.  Those of us who have gone through it or known a loved one who went through it ARE AWARE!  As one of the favorite bumper stickers I’ve seen says: “F---Awareness.  Find a Cure!”

-Jennifer Henry

guin October 18, 2012 at 01:39 AM
Love it Jennifer - YOU are one STRONG lady and you will get through this too! Hugs to you and Jason. ~guin

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