Jennifer’s Story as told by Melinda Neeley
A Tug on My Shirttail, a Push at My Heels

My breast cancer story is a little extraordinary. I did not discover a lump, have other breast cancer symptoms or get diagnosed based on the reading of a yearly mammogram. Instead, my experience began with an “intuition,” or nagging sensation that kept pushing me to get checked. This intuitive feeling continued for several days and would not subside. I was only 34 at the time, still a bit underage to begin regular mammogram checkups. My age, along with the fact that I had no symptoms, made it puzzling that I was feeling such an urgent need to be checked.

Finally, on one of my days off, this urge became so incessant that I scheduled a mammogram. Within just two days after the pictures were taken, I was called back in for more X-rays. Although I am usually very unsuspecting in nature, I was shocked when the doctor informed me that she needed further diagnostic mammograms to take a closer look at some suspicious calcifications in my left breast. What was a calcification? I thought. I didn’t know anything about this. I was horrified that my films looked suspicious, but convinced myself that it was nothing. After the diagnostic pictures were reviewed, things moved very quickly, and the doctor scheduled me for an immediate biopsy. It was shortly thereafter that I was diagnosed with breast cancer. The course of action included a lumpectomy and 33 radiation treatments, but thankfully, I did not lose my breast. Although this sudden chain of events was devastating, at the same time I felt very thankful and blessed that the cancer was found early.

Thinking back now, cancer has probably always been a bit of a concern for me and other members of my family because it drastically stunted the growth of our family tree. My father's mother died of breast cancer when she was only 35. At only 7 years old, Dad didn’t quite understand that the course of his life was about to change forever. He would be forced to live the rest of his life without the nurturing arms or gentle guidance of a mother.

His mother’s cancer was the beginning of a terrible domino effect on the family. After she died, my grandmother’s sister developed and won the battle with breast cancer in her 40’s, but later died of colon cancer when she was in her 80’s. All three of her other siblings died of pancreatic or pancreatic-liver cancer. Other family members tried to come up with theories for this high familial cancer rate, one being that is was caused from a swimming hole contaminated by factory chemicals that the siblings swam in when they were children. But later, the domino effect began again. A second cousin died from a combination of multiple myeloma and breast cancer, and another second cousin fought and survived her battle with thyroid cancer.

The pattern continued when my 37-year-old first cousin was diagnosed with breast cancer about 8 years ago. At only 29, she consequently had to undergo a double mastectomy with reconstructive surgery. Her cancer was discovered by chance when her gynecologist felt a large irregularity in one of her breasts during a routine examination. This ultimately saved her life. Her diagnosis occurred just a few years before mine.

Due to this outbreak of familial cancer, much of which has occurred during early to middle adulthood years, it has always been in the back of my mind that these vicious cancers might have hereditary causes. But there was never any hard evidence – that is, until my aunt decided to take action.

Bound and determined to find out what the culprit was, my aunt entered herself into a cancer genetics study. As both the mother and daughter of women with breast cancer, my dad’s sister was on the warpath. She has always been the backbone of the family – the one everyone turns to for advice, strength and joy, so it was not surprising that she chose to do this. She wanted to find reasons why her family has suffered, and to put an end to the tragic cancer saga, so she became part of a study at UAMS in Little Rock. She allowed genetic specialists to do studies on the family to try to pinpoint the cause of the cancers – not just of the breast – but of all of the cancers. It was becoming very apparent that they were all linked.

During this study, it was recommended that a blood test be performed on my first cousin to see if she carried the BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene mutation. She tested positive for BRCA2, solving the mystery of why cancer has been invading our family for so many years. Through diagrams and studies, doctors traced the gene back to my great-great grandmother and grandmother. They explained how this mutation can disable the tumor-fighting ability in certain parts of your body, giving you an 85% chance of developing breast cancer as well as higher risks for various other cancers including ovarian, pancreatic, prostrate and thyroid. Being positive for this gene also means there is a 50% chance that you will pass the gene on to your children, they explained. Based on this information, my aunt and my father decided to be tested, and both had positive results for BRCA2. At that point, it was clear: the other three of my aunt’s children, my two sisters, and myself had a 50% chance of having this genetic defect.

My other three cousins were tested and, thankfully, they were all negative. My oldest sister was also negative. My other sister and I haven't been tested yet, but I strongly believe I already carry the gene since I developed breast cancer at a young age.

For someone who does carry the gene but has not yet been diagnosed with cancer, there is much hope. Prophylactic measures such as mastectomy and/or oopherectomy, can be taken along with the option of taking cancer prevention medication. Although these are hard choices that should be made very carefully based on various health conditions, age and emotional state, at least there are choices available.

Through all of this I have learned that preventive measures outside of regular checkups just aren’t yet part of the protocol for younger women. To date, women under 40 are not advised to have mammograms due to the density of their breast tissue, and although ultrasound would be another option for detection, this normally isn’t recommended for young women unless their own mother or sister has had breast cancer. So, unfortunately, discovering breast cancer in a young woman normally occurs by chance or mistake, and often, as in my cousin’s case, it has already progressed to a later stage, leaving only radical options. I was an exception, but only due to a gut instinct. That is why I would like to see women monitored more closely – especially when they have “suspicious” family histories like mine—histories scattered with various cancers, not necessarily of the breast, and not necessarily in a mother or sister, but histories that are saturated with the disease. Before my diagnosis, the closest relative I had with breast cancer was my grandmother, so I was not considered high risk. However, the rest of my extended family was ridden with cancer – a great indicator that something was genetically wrong.

I am thankful that I caught this early, and hopefully, it won't come back. My doctor, Dr. James Hagans of Little Rock, has been great. A wonderful physician and human being, I really think a lot of him because of his gentle and spiritual nature. What he did for me the day of my lumpectomy will always remain with me. When it was time for me to go back for my surgery he gently told me he had said a prayer for me that morning. That meant a lot and I felt at ease as soon as he told me that.

I encourage anyone who has breast cancer in his or her family to be checked. My doctors always told me in the past I didn't have anything to worry about because breast cancer was on my dad’s side. With the BRCA2 gene, however, it can be passed down from either parent.

I have been through a lot since I had breast cancer. They took more biopsy samples than what they had originally planned, which was frightening and uncomfortable. I also had two needles inserted into my breast before surgery instead of just one, and I developed an allergic reaction to the radiation gel. In addition, the Tamoxifen I'm taking as a cancer preventative has put me into early menopause at age 35. But my faith in God has helped me through it all.

I am convinced it was God, and perhaps a guardian angel or two, who kept tugging on my shirttail and pushing at my heels, urging me to get checked at such an early age. Without symptoms, it was only through His guidance that the cancer was caught at Stage 0, thus giving it no opportunity to spread. My advice to all women is to get thorough checkups, get genetic testing whenever there is a strong family history of ANY type of cancer, and no matter what age you are – always listen to God, to your body, to the revelations and wisdom of others, and to your intuition – because I have decided these things can all be one and the same: God’s way of speaking to us. And, when God speaks, it always gives us the power to heal.

Mrs. Ethridge is now a 4-year cancer survivor. She is a Management Project Analyst for a human development center in Arkansas, and lives with her husband, Randy, and 16-year-old son, Jacob.

Melinda Neeley is the sister of Mrs. Ethridge. She is an Arkansan freelance writer whose inspirational stories have appeared in several publications and ezines, including Ascent Aspirations Magazine, www.lifetoolsforwomen.com, www.healingwordspress.com, www.expressionsofsoul.com, and www.christian-parent.com. In 2005, her story, “From the Hollow of a Bell,” appeared in a short story anthology titled, Clerestory: a Windowed Wall, published by DLSIJ Press. Her latest inspirational projects, “Inside Out” and “The Cemetery Women,” are to be released in 2007 in Leaps of Faith: Out of the Heart Women Speak, the first book in a series of inspirational stories written by Christian women from all over the world.

Jennifer
Conway, AR


 


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