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It was the autumn of 2016 that one of our close friends was diagnosed with cancer. Jen wrote 14,000 words on this site about her battle with breast cancer in which she left no stone unturned. She shared the most intimate of details, describing emotions, choices, highs, and extreme lows without one ounce of hesitation. And as a result, we’ve had many people reach out thanking her for sharing those raw details. Whether those folks have a friend going through a diagnosis and treatment or if they are themselves – the consensus is that Jen kept it real.
But… As it turns out, there was a little more to the story.
What’s below is an account of Jen’s battle through a different set of eyes. We’re going to share this version of the story with you today and then we’ll have our third and final installment of Jen’s battle in February. That is full of all the humorous situations associated with her battle.
But what we have for you below is an honest account of what it’s like when you’re best friend’s life is turned upside down – and then she’s left to pick up the pieces.
My best friend was diagnosed with cancer
I have known Jen for about 10 years. We came to know one another when she and her husband moved to our area in central Ohio for a job at the manufacturing facility we both work at today. In short, we’ve lived our 30’s together as part of a small group of friends: volleyball, bar crawls, hanging out on weekends, Labor Day getaways.
She was there for my wedding and we have now seen each other become parents. While Jen started as a work colleague, she has very much become one of my closest and most trusted friends.
If you have read her first-person perspective of the story, you already know she is a badass and faced her cancer diagnosis head-on. But as so many have said, a cancer diagnosis doesn’t just impact the person with the illness; it also impacts the people around that person.
Here is Jen’s story told from the perspective of a male friend and work colleague…
Labor Day Weekend 2016
In what had become a Labor Day tradition (four years running), our small group of friends had gathered at a rental house on Lake Huron for the weekend. That year, my wife and I had the pleasure of breaking the news to our friends that she was three months pregnant with our first child. Jen and our other friend Erica had just given birth the preceding spring, so they were happy to start giving us words of wisdom. Otherwise, it was a fairly normal getaway weekend: cornhole, drinking, board games, and beach time.
At one point during the weekend, Jen mentioned in passing conversation amongst the group that she found a lump in her breast. She went on to say, “The radiologist says it was just a clogged milk duct…nothing to worry about it…maybe they will do another scan or something after I’m done breastfeeding.” I stayed out of the conversation as the girls chatted back and forth about it. No one seemed alarmed and the conversation naturally changed to something else shortly thereafter.
But that little passing comment stuck with me. On the way home, I brought it up with my wife and said, “Something just doesn’t sound right about that…hopefully it’s nothing though.” And on we drove homeward. Little did I know my Spidey Sense would be right…
November 3, 2016
It was about 8:55 AM and I was sitting in my office, preparing for a 9:00 meeting. Jen popped in, presumably to shoot the bull, gossip, or just escape her lab for a little while. Admittedly, I was a little annoyed knowing I had a meeting in 5 minutes and her timing was not good.
But she persisted. “I need to tell you something quickly before your meeting because I’m leaving for a doctor’s appointment shortly.” Something was off. Her eyes welled with an anxiety I had not seen in her before.
“I have breast cancer.”
The words just seemed to echo. My eyes widened in disbelief. Jaw dropped in confusion. Speechless. Time stood still for a moment.
Jen did her best to hold it together. Meanwhile, I was trying to process what she had just told me. “How do I react? What do I say?” There was no right answer. Sometimes a hug says all the things you’re thinking without actually uttering the words. This was one of those times.
Shaken, but pulling herself together, Jen proceeded to tell me the story. Her story. I was late for my meeting by this point, but it didn’t matter. It was more important to just listen.
I spent most of that day trying to process the devastating news. I have never known anyone close to me that had breast cancer, let alone someone nearly my own age. A lot of scary thoughts/questions come to mind when you hear something like this. Especially when it’s an unknown situation.
After work, my wife and I had planned to meet for dinner before working on our baby registry. I waited for her in the parking lot at the restaurant. Before we went in, I stopped her and said in an unusually somber tone “I need to tell you something.” Pausing, I couldn’t believe the words about to come out of my mouth: “Jen has breast cancer.”
Jen. 36 years old. A picture of health. New mother to a little girl. Wife of a caring husband. Our friend. She was about to start the fight of her life.
Late 2016 / Early 2017
Many people would curl up and feel sorry for themselves after news like Jen received. One could argue that is a perfectly natural reaction. Jen went through the usual questions that most people would ask themselves:
“How did this happen?”
“What could I have done to prevent this?”
But anyone who really knows Jen knows she is not one to sit and feel sorry for herself. Once she had time to process her diagnosis, she dug in and did her research. The question of “Can I beat this?” quickly diminished and transformed into a definitive mission statement: “This is how I am going to beat this.”
As Jen learned about the treatment process and the potential side effects, she would share it with those of us close to her
In retrospect, becoming educated was probably her first step in the recovery process. By extension, I think it helped those of us around her start to feel a sense of optimism. While the end result may have not been certain at this point, a lot of the unknowns in the process became knowns.
Being close to Jen, the effects of chemo were pretty obvious the days that followed her first few treatments. She would often stop by my office to tell me how it went and how she was feeling. “It’s called the ‘red devil’ for a reason” she would say. And then more scientifically, “You’re basically poisoning your body to kill off the cancer cells.”
She opted to do treatment on Mondays and bear the after-effects of it during the work week just so that she could be as close to 100% on the weekends for her little girl.
Put that into perspective for a moment: she would have been totally justified taking a medical leave of absence, yet she continued working to maintain a sense of normalcy.
Very few people at work knew what was going on for the first few weeks
Then out of nowhere, Jen sent an e-mail to our entire technical team. She broke the news to all of our colleagues head-on, explaining that she didn’t want her diagnosis to be a secret and that she didn’t want to be treated any differently because of it. It was a simple e-mail, but a powerful statement. Over the weeks and months that followed, that e-mail had its intended effect and more. It was amazing to see colleagues understand more about the disease and treatment just because Jen was so open about it.
The chemo’s ill effects seemed to impact her less and less further into the treatment process
I could see her hair thinning as the months went on (something I never let on to keep her positive), but it was minimized through her use of cold caps. Outwardly, her appearance was such that most people wouldn’t realize she was fighting this demon inside. At times, it was almost easy to forget she had cancer and was going through treatment. That’s not to say it wasn’t hell, but it speaks to Jen’s physical, mental and emotional strength.
April / May 2017
After her chemo treatments ended, it was onto the next phase of treatment: surgery. But just as things were looking up, Jen was thrown another curveball: a lumpectomy was not an option. It had to be a mastectomy to remove the tumor. I knew what a mastectomy was…but I didn’t really know what it was until Jen explained it.
I can’t pretend to know what it’s like to go through this rollercoaster ride in the first person. But as one of several close friends, I know we felt some of the same proverbial G-forces as if we were on the train with her. As a male friend, it’s even harder to imagine what it’s like to have part of you removed that makes you uniquely female. But then Jen puts it all in perspective, “Hey, they’re just boobs. Better to lose those than end up dead.”
This part of the story could serve as a microcosm of the whole thing: Jen takes a punch to the gut, drops to the mat and picks herself back up. After she sizes up the situation and tells the people in her corner how this is going to go down, she heads right back into the scrum to throw a hard punch. And therein lies the beauty of the whole thing: what is a healing process for her somehow manifests itself as emotional therapy for those closest to her.
Ten days after a successful surgery, we saw Jen for the first time at Komen Race for the Cure. I could tell the surgery was physically taxing on her, but it was a beautiful site to see her there amongst so many other survivors six months after this entire ordeal had started. I had run that race several times before 2017, but it was never as poignant as this one.
As time passed following her mastectomy, she grew stronger and stronger again. The final surgery was coming up in August and things seemed to be coming down the home stretch. After some discussion with my wife, we decided to invite Jen, Pete (her husband), and Briana (daughter) with us on vacation to Myrtle Beach in early October. We now had a six-month-old baby and they had just been through one of the toughest years of their lives. An easy week in a beach condo would be good for all of us.
Jen had her exchange surgery as planned in early August. Finally, the most physical parts of the journey were over. We all knew there would be regular exams and medications going forward, but the chemo, the mastectomy, and the exchange surgery were all complete. And with the early August timing, she would be able to join our group of friends for our yearly lake house trip to Michigan over Labor Day Weekend. Finally, things had come full circle since that passing comment about a “clogged milk duct” only a year before.
But then something from the exchange didn’t go right
As Jen would tell it, a scab opened up while in the shower. Some of the sutures weren’t holding. And it only became worse while we were all away in Michigan. Pete played pseudo-surgeon with steri strips and the rest of us just did our best to keep things positive for the both of them.
After returning home, the surgeon was able to sew things back up. Maybe just a small setback? Soon enough we were all off to Myrtle Beach, Jen and Pete leaving a half day before us. By the time we met them at the condo that Saturday evening, Jen was already struggling with the second set of sutures. They just wouldn’t hold. Jen was tense and in a panic. And who could blame her? It was almost a year to the day since her diagnosis. Who could have predicted this might be the most difficult part?
By Monday of vacation week, the doctor had confirmed by phone her worst fear at this stage of the game: more surgery – the implants needed to be replaced. It was the most emotional I had seen my friend in person since that day in my office.
Fall 2017 / Winter 2018
Jen’s third surgery came quickly after vacation and with it, yet another curveball. Rather than just replacing both implants, one would require Jen to go through the expansion process and a fourth surgery. In her own words, the immediate reaction coming out of surgery was volatile (to put it mildly).
But just like she had done in each phase of her recovery process, she pulled herself together, focused on the path ahead, and charged forward like a champ. And in January, the fourth surgery was the last surgery.
There is a quote from the movie Rocky Balboa that sums up my dear friend Jen and her journey from cancer diagnosis to recovery:
“It’s about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward. How much you can take and keep moving forward. That’s how winning is done.”
I don’t know that I have ever known a more resilient person
And that’s not just because Jen survived, but the way she did it through every phase and every setback. She has been an inspiration to her friends and family that have been through this journey with her. And I am certain she will continue to be an inspiration as more women (and men) hear her story…including her own daughter when she is old enough to understand what her mother battled through.
I am proud to call Jen my friend and more than anything, I am thankful she is still here to read this.
I’m obviously biased but it’s so inspiring to read about Jen’s story. Each and every time I hear about her drive and determination, it makes me want to grab my workout gear and go find a gym somewhere (or a park). But what about you? We’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments section below!
Thanks for reading!