Jennifer MacKenzie, a 3-year breast cancer survivor, joined me on the podcast today to share her story behind the pink ribbon. Jennifer was diagnosed with stage 2 invasive ductal carcinoma at the age of 35. she talked about her diagnosis, treatments, and struggling with coming to terms that her life would not return to what it was before cancer. Jennifer also talked about the lack of support for parents who become the primary caregivers for young adult cancer patients/survivors.
Jennifer MacKenzie was diagnosed with stage 2 invasive ductal carcinoma in February 2017 at the age of 35. On January 1, 2017, Jennifer reached for her cell phone, and as she did felt a lump in her breast as her hand brushed against it. It felt like a marble, it hurt, and it was movable; all the supposed signs that it was not cancer. Jennifer had an appointment with her family doctor a few days later. While her doctor did not seem to be concerned, Jennifer had a gut feeling that something was not right. Despite her doctor’s lack of concern, she referred Jennifer for an ultrasound to verify that she had a cyst in her breast.
In Canada, the law requires that an individual undergo a mammogram before having an ultrasound. During the mammogram, two additional lumps were identified in Jennifer’s breast and both were considered suspicious. She was then sent for an ultrasound, which was immediately followed by a biopsy. Since all three lumps were considered suspicious, Jennifer had to undergo a biopsy of all three lumps and all three were positive for cancer. Jennifer had to undergo another mammogram to ensure that the markers were appropriately placed during the biopsy. She shared that the tech hugged her and told her that her life was about to change. Jennifer sat with this for 2 weeks before telling anyone in her family that she had breast cancer.
Telling her parents that she had cancer was one of the hardest things for her to do. Her parents were shocked. None of it made sense. There was no family history of breast cancer and she was too young. Jennifer’s parents were her primary caregivers. While Jennifer felt like her dad had support from a friend that lost a son to brain cancer, Jennifer felt as though her mom was alone in this journey. Jennifer often searched for a support group for her mother because she too needed support.
Jennifer shared that she did not feel comfortable with her first medical team and switched to another hospital. She felt very comfortable with her second team of doctors. Jennifer put her full trust in her doctors and moved from appointment to appointment. She never googled information but rather waited for her doctors to provided the information. She feels is important for patients to feel confident and comfortable with their medical team. Sometimes, we have to trust our gut when something does not feel right.
During the transition to the new medical facility, the previous medical facility lost the biopsy information. Subsequently, Jennifer had to undergo additional diagnostic testing to include a biopsy of the lumps once again. A lump was also found in Jennifer’s other breast but was found to be non-cancerous. Jennifer’s medical oncologist did not recommend a bilateral mastectomy but her plastic surgeon was willing to complete the surgery if Jennifer wanted it. Not having to undergo another biopsy was high at the top of the list for reasons to have a bilateral mastectomy, which is what Jennifer opted for. She had immediate reconstruction using her tissue to rebuild her breasts. Jennifer recalls that she viewed her options in a positive light, which made the decisions for reconstruction easier. While having a mastectomy is nothing like a boob job, thinking of it as such made the decision a little bit easier, and having liposuction seemed appealing too. At this point, Jennifer isn’t sure that she made the right decision. Sometimes she feels loss for parting ways with the one breast that didn’t have cancer.
Jennifer’s recovery was approximately a month. She struggled with the drains, as they were painful and served as a daily reminder of what she was going through. Once the drains were removed, she felt like her recovery was much better. Jennifer had to undergo a second surgery to correct the first surgery and also had larger implants put in. She was a triple D before the mastectomy and an A cup after, which was unexpected. She had to have some of her muscle removed to support the larger implants. Jennifer underwent chemotherapy for six rounds in the summer. While it was not ideal, losing her hair provided some additional air conditioning.
Jennifer doesn’t feel lucky to have gone through cancer but it really changed her perspective, her outlook on life, and the people she surrounds herself with. It taught her a lot of life lessons- to laugh more and to listen to people. She tries to help other women who are also going through breast cancer. Jennifer used humor as a way to get through cancer. Using humor made people more comfortable talking about cancer and it is important to have conversations about cancer in young patients.
Jennifer felt so alone after treatments. Though her outward appearance showed that she was healing, she was struggling mentally. Jennifer was waiting for her life to return to normal and struggled when she realized that her life was not going to return to normal. She met with a therapist and found a way to use her journey to help others. She found a way to throw herself into something that she knew a lot about. She felt like she did not know a lot about her past life but felt that she could focus on the future of her new life.
Jennifer wants other women to know that they are not alone.