Monday, November 14, 2011

Montana Part I: Jenna's Cancer

Last month my friend Jenna Skype'd to say she was getting her ovaries removed in (yet another) preventative measure to hopefully avoid a cancer relapse. I was in a rare position to afford the $300 plane ticket to Kalispell, Montana and decided to fly out to give her hand. This is the first of three posts about that trip. (Part II is here. Part III is here.)

Jenna and Me c. 1999
(yes, I had short hair.)
Jenna and I met 20 years ago when we both had our first "real" job at a well known San Francisco publishing house. Neither of us made enough money to live comfortably and we bonded over lunch strategies (soup or potatoes? Rice or beans?). We struggled through boyfriends and breakups - job changes and moves. We were first attendants at each others' weddings (neither of us like the term "brides maid") and we went through four pregnancies between us. She moved to Montana in 2002 but it didn't keep us from seeing each other - she visited the Bay Area often and we had our phones and computers to stay connected.

In 2009, a few months after I left my marriage, Jenna was diagnosed with breast cancer. It wasn't just a little lump that had to be removed. She was looking at a full course of chemo, a bilateral mastectomy, reconstruction, radiation, hormone treatment and (now) the removal of her ovaries. She was 39. We both were.

For me it was a reality check. I didn't think anything could be worse than what I was going through by attempting to end my marriage (though officially separated, my husband and I were living in the same home) but suddenly I was grateful for my health.

Because the hospitals in San Francisco and Marin County (where her in-laws live) specialize in breast cancer, much of her treatment was done there. For me it meant she was a mere thirty minutes away and I could spend some time with her. The chemo - she said - wasn't so bad. She was never sick. Just really really tired. Three days after returning from the surgery that removed her breasts, Jenna was up and around visiting with people at her mother-in-law's home on her 40th birthday. And no. I'm not kidding.

Jenna was a picture of graceful strength. Inspiring in her humble silence.

Furthermore, Jenna never made light of my divorce proceedings. She'd always ask how things were going, offer advice, listen to me cry. She never said "well at least you still have your boobs." If I were her, I'd have sure been tempted.

My divorce is over and my life, though different, is generally good. Being a single mom isn't as bad as being married to the wrong person. Yes -I  struggle to pay the bills and juggle schedules but I'm not worried about a relapse. It's over. 

Not for Jenna. Almost three years since her diagnosis and she made the decision to have her ovaries removed, a step to make permanent the depletion of estrogen circulating in her body since her tumor was one that feeds off her own natural hormones. In January of 2009, when she was diagnosed, I wasn't able to fly out to be with her. This time everything was lined up to make it work: a little extra cash in my wallet, a surprisingly affordable plane ticket and her surgery was taking place right before a weekend my kids would be their dad.

I was off to Montana.

PS - Here is a link with instructions on how to check your breasts for lumps every month. DON'T WAIT to see your doctor if you find ANYTHING suspicious.

UPDATE: From Jenna:
Statistically, younger women are diagnosed with more aggressive and faster-progressing cancers, so if a younger woman (pre-menopausal) feels a lump OR ANY MARKED CHANGE (mine wasn’t a lump) in her breast she should have it checked. Many younger women wouldn’t even really think that they have breast cancer -- “it’s an older woman’s disease”, “I don’t have BC in my family”, etc...First time I felt mine I never gave a serious thought that it might be breast cancer.

I honestly believe that if I had gone to the doctor early in December when I first felt the thickish firmer part of my right breast rather than a month later, I may have been diagnosed at stage II before it went to my nodes and the nodes are the big deal.  

The 5-year survival rate between stage II and stage III is about 20% better and looking at a 80% survival rate is WAY better than a 60% survival rate. If you are younger and feel a change in your breast you can’t necessarily afford to wait.  And even if they did mammograms on younger women, waiting a year between exams would likely lead to a stage IV or metastatic disease if you had an aggressive cancer.  

I had even had my annual exam and my doctor had done a breast exam in September and it didn’t make a difference for me.


  1. I'm glad you were able to do that. Taking time (and money) to support a friend is one decision you'll always be pleased with, no matter what lies ahead.

  2. What a wonderful gift of friendship. Both the visit and blogging about it.

    I am SO thankful for my girlfriends... they helped in so many ways. My bestie, since age 3, was able to fly in twice- once for my scary round 2nd round of chemo and again for my bilateral mastectomy + node removal.

    Happy to share that my Stage 3A cancer is under control.

    MOST IMPORTANTLY I too profess "it's NOT nothing"... if you feel something act quickly. This whole "your too young" myth is deadly.

    Krista Colvin- diagnosed at 43, BRCA2 positive- that means I carry the genetic mutation and that means my odds were 84% breast cancer 24% ovarian cancer I have a 50-50 chance of passing this gene on to my 2 children.


I love getting comments on my posts! Yours will be approved within a couple of hours. Thanks so much for taking the time to read my words.