Jennifer Kehm, the co-founder of the Young Women’s Breast Cancer Awareness Foundation (YWBCAF) and the Development Director at Cancer Caring Center in Pittsburgh, PA, joined me on the podcast today to share her story behind the pink ribbon. We talked about her diagnosis and treatments, as well as complications during reconstruction. We also talked about the need for awareness and education of breast cancer in young women (and men), lifelong monitoring, and social/emotional support.
Jennifer Kehm is the co-founder of the Young Women’s Breast Cancer Awareness Foundation and the Development Director at Cancer Caring Center in Pittsburgh, PA.
Jennifer was diagnosed with stage 2B, triple positive ductal carcinoma in 2000 at the age of 36. Jennifer found a lump in her breast while bathing. With no family history of cancer and the changes that were taking place within her breasts due to pregnancy, she was not overly concerned. She thought it was a lymph node. She waited two weeks to see if there were any changes and then went to see the gynecologist. Her gynecologist thought that it was likely just a cyst but sent her for diagnostic testing. She had all of the tests completed in one day over the course of 5 hours.
Jennifer had not had much knowledge about young women having breast cancer and never really thought she would be diagnosed. She went on a scheduled family vacation and got the call while sitting on the beach. The doctor had confirmed the presence of breast cancer. Jennifer recalls being numb at first and then seeking out all the information she could and finding the best medical people to help her. Jennifer’s mother had a medical error a few years prior to her own diagnosis, which colored how she viewed her own experience. She wanted to be in the driver’s seat and wanted to be educated. She lived by the motto that her grandfather always used- “measure twice and cut once” so she sought out opinions from three different surgeons and three different oncologists with the final decision resting on Jennifer.
She underwent a lumpectomy to remove the three masses that were in her breast; however, the margins were not clear. She belabored over the decision but decided to have a unilateral mastectomy followed by immediate reconstruction. The expander broke during the expansion process. She woke up one morning and was flat. Her body had absorbed the fluid of the expander and she had to be expanded all over again. Jennifer had chemotherapy followed by five years of Tamoxifen. She did not receiver Herceptin, which was in a clinical trial at the time, because she did not meet the criteria for the clinical trial.
Jennifer met with the genetic counselor but with no family history, she was not tested. Following her diagnosis, her aunt was diagnosed with breast cancer and then an uncle was diagnosed with prostate cancer. She went back for genetic testing in 2015 but tested negative.
She is now followed through a survivorship program and highly encourages others to take advantage of these kinds of programs when available. The general public seems to think that once a person is through cancer, the person is fine. The truth is that 30% of early-stage breast cancers moved to metastatic cancer. There is no rhyme or reason as to why it metastasizes in some individuals. Jennifer shutters at the idea that women are told they are cancer-free after 5 years. The reality is that once diagnosed, we have to monitor our health for the rest of our lives. It is important to find a balance between the awareness that cancer can return and living life.
Jennifer co-founded the Young Women’s Breast Cancer Awareness Foundation to raise awareness that young women (and men) do get breast cancer. Her inspiration came from her own lack of awareness and meeting many young women during chemotherapy who had been turned away for months because their doctors thought they were too young. The YWBCAF not only educates to raise awareness but also educates women on how to become their own advocates. The organization also provides social-emotional support, which is one of the missing components of many health facilities. Jennifer offers weekly zoom meetings on Thursdays.
The Cancer Caring Center also provides emotional support through support groups, as well as individual counseling. They also have speakers on specific topics.