Hear from Jen, an inspiring mom with an empowering perspective.
Currently, I am undergoing chemotherapy for Stage 2a breast cancer. The diagnosis took place in August, but there’s a bit of a history to share before then; I am currently 40 years old and have one son who just turned 4. In 2015, while trying to get pregnant, I went through a pregnancy loss. It was devastating.
Months later, however, I was pregnant with my son and replete with anxiety, nausea and uncertainty. At the tail-end of my pregnancy, I developed severe vertigo that left me ill and imbalanced for 3 years. I returned to work 8 weeks postpartum and ill. I have been teaching high school for 14 years, and at that point, everything was depleting and taking its toll. In the meantime, I also developed mastitis mostly because I was favoring one breast. The right breast just hurt. I was a small breasted woman (as I sit here post bilateral mastectomy with my expanders, I can safely say WAS), and just thought the pain was normal. It didn’t feel right that I had such little breast tissue.
My vertigo took over every aspect of my life, to the point where I almost wished I would develop cancer to relieve my body of its pain. This this is very difficult and personal for me to share, but I was suffering. I had wanted so badly to be a mom, and couldn’t believe that my body had lost control. I experienced a lot of self blame, self hatred, stress, sleep deprivation, hormonal fluctuations... everything! Well, I say I wished cancer upon myself until that horrible “omen” hit.
In 2018 my mother, who at the time was a 17-year survivor of Stage 1a breast cancer, was experiencing debilitating back pain. Although she had just retired as a nurse, she listened to the medical doctors who didn’t think an MRI was necessary. She was 67 and has osteoporosis; the practitioners attributed it to that. Luckily, she eventually went for an MRI to find out what I already intuitively knew: my mom’s cancer had metastasized to her bones, 17 years after her initial diagnosis at age 50. She went through radiation and is currently on IBrance, which is working its magic (I pray everyday) on her ER+PR+ HER2- BC.
Jen and her mom - two women, who are truly Fighting Pretty!
I share this because cancer runs in my family. My mother was tested for BRCA genes, and since she did not have the mutation, I was advised not to worry. There’s a caveat, however, since her last genetic test was in 2010, and a plethora of other mutations are now tested. At age 38, I was still suffering from imbalance (I attribute this to my body telling me that something wasn’t right), and went to get it examined. Since my right breast area felt more like gravel, the practitioner didn’t seem concerned. Given my mom’s history and family history in general, I should have been concerned.
In March of 2020, I turned 40 after the second day of the COVID-19 shutdown in Bergen County, New Jersey. Needless to say, scheduling a mammogram took a backseat. My vertigo was just about clearing up and I was feeling great! Life was terrible globally, people I knew passed, but I felt good physically. I could BE a MOM!
In the summer, I decided to go for a routine physical after pointing out the “gravel feeling” on my right breast to my husband. The NP who performed the physical wasn’t alarmed when she felt the area, but she was a bit concerned and encouraged me to go for a mammogram. So, on August 5, 2020 I had my first mammogram. It looked suspicious, and the way the radiologist delivered the news was quite condescending. He actually said to me, "You are very small breasted. You have no breast tissue on your right side, and do you understand me - this doesn’t look good. I wish you luck. You have a long road ahead.” I didn’t know how to react. Apparently, he referenced the small breast because he was concerned that a tumor or tumors had sucked in the breast tissue.
I took my paperwork to a hospital where I was officially diagnosed. After biopsies, an MRI and more appointments, I eventually ended up making an appointment with Memorial Sloan Kettering in New York City on September 8th. I did not know what to tell my students as we started the school year virtually, but since I do get the same set of students, oftentimes more than once, I told them the truth. It was awkward but liberating. As an adult, I wanted to show that cancer isn’t a secret, and that it could happen to anyone. In the middle of all of this, my genetic testing did come back to show that I have a CHK2 Mutation. This was very important for me to share with my family especially my identical twin sister who is thankfully cancer free, but will be tracked.
On September 28th, I had a bilateral mastectomy performed at Memorial Sloan Kettering by a surgeon who is out of this world. I also have to commend the nurses, fellows, anesthesiologists and my plastic surgeon who have been an incredible part of the team.
When I woke up from the surgery, everything felt surreal. I had to check, and saw the bandages and drains hanging by my side. All of this was happening in a pandemic. My husband took time off from work to help in any way he could (he’s such an involved father and needed to make sure our son was taken care of) but it was my mom - a Stage IV warrior who was taking me to all of my appointments, helping me to wash my hair and shower, etc. I was fortunate to have healed well, but that is not to say that the surgery was easy. I did get an infection at the drain site that was cleared up by a second round of antibiotic.
My biggest fear through a lot of this was that the vertigo could come back. However, my body was handling things well, and I tried not to give up like I had with the vertigo.
When the pathology came back, I was diagnosed with Stage 2a cancer (ERPR+Her 2- like my mom’s) which was node negative. I almost cried when I found out that the cancer didn’t spread to the nodes. However, based on my age and Oncotype score of 24, I was advised that chemo would be my best option to reduce my risk of recurrence in the next 10 years in case the cancer cells did spread to my bloodstream. I was terrified of the thought of chemo.
In October, I started chemotherapy. During this time, I was drain-free and healing well. My mom took me to all of my appointments until recently. With COVID and my son being in Pre-K, I told her that she needed to stay protected. Therefore, my hubby has taken me to treatments, and I drive myself to other appointments (one being plastics and the other to acupuncture which has been incredible.)
So far, I have had 4 treatments with a therapy called CMF. One of the biggest decisions of my life was opting which treatment to take; TC which is a little more aggressive and slightly more effective, was also presented to me. My mom had been present when my incredible oncologist and her equally amazing nurse explained the two courses of treatment to me and I burst out saying, "I’ll take the TC!” When they left the room, my mom turned to me and said, “For such a minuscule difference, are you sure you’re ready for the harsher side effects after getting through 3 plus years of vertigo?” This was essential for what my breast surgeon had reiterated the next day when I met with her for a post surgical follow up. So, I opted for CMF, and here I am. I hope it works, and I have faith in it.
Treatments are difficult. They affected my vestibular/balance system which is hard, but it’s more temporary. I exercise to offset side-effects, have been able to eat and have my hair. My periods have been regular after 4 treatments (which is unexpected), and I have 4 treatments to go, and am counting down the days. I am worried about side effects of Tamoxifen, and although I am so incredibly grateful for the baby and incredible son that I prayed for, the window for me to have any more children has closed. That was a difficult piece to accept. I could have frozen my eggs, I could have looked into surrogacy, I could wait until I’m 51 and am off of Tamoxifen to have a miracle baby, but I decided to mourn this piece and keep a healthy mindset so that I can mother my son until he’s at least 100 (j/k).
I love being on the move and was always active, so the health setbacks hit me hard! Also, I blamed myself for a lot of what happened. Did the stress from the vertigo give me cancer? Was it all the drinking I did in my 20’s and the extra glass of wine I had in my 30’s? Was it coffee? Certainly it wasn’t the kale shakes and vegetables that I was fastidious about. I was once an athlete - a swimmer and runner. How did I get breast cancer?
This is the most I’ve written about my journey, and trust me, after vertigo and feeling good, I felt like I was being punished. I wanted to finally be a “normal” woman. Not some “freak” with health issues at a fairly young age. However, life seems brighter. There’s a spiritual renewal taking place. I’m praying more, I’m happier, enjoying moments more, and I am fortunate to get paid leave from work. I am so appreciative of my amazing teaching benefits and health insurance, but I’m also extremely apprehensive about going back to the profession. I feel that my relationship to the job over the past few years changed , and I have allowed it to cause me more stress than I show. I’ve always loved teaching, but I believe there might also exist a new path ahead.
The support that so many women have shown me is unbelievable. I could go on and on. The community I teach in has been by my side, and the MSK staff is top notch!
I’ll leave it at that!
With so much love and gratitude, I appreciate the voice you have given me!
- Jen Crespo