Last year, October, I featured a stories about two moms who are both friends (Bryn Colvin and Lisa Mittleman) both of whom had been recently diagnosed with breast cancer. I felt the timing of the story was appropriate and inspirational because October is Breast Cancer awareness month and these two ladies were great examples of strength and courage. A year later, I am happy to report that both of Lisa and Bryn are thriving and have overcome their disease.
This year, October, I want to share the story of another mom, with three young children, who has been diagnosed with breast cancer. Many of you already know her….Jori Jellison. Her story is incredibly interesting, because she is completely responsible for finding the cancer, insisting on a mammogram and, basically, saving her own life.
When Jori and I first started talking she shared that her maternal grandmother died of breast cancer when she was only five years old. But, having a history of breast cancer in the family didn’t cause Jori to do regular breast exams. As a matter of fact, she sort of avoided them. Given her family history, she DID have a mammogram at the age of 35, but when that came back clean, she sort of tucked away any thought of breast cancer. Around the time she was 38 years old, something made her think about doing a breast exam, and when she did, she felt a small lump right away. Even after she detected this abnormality, she waited a short time before calling her doctor. When she finally got in to see him, he agreed he felt a small lump, and told her would be okay to watch it for a little while. But, Jori’s instincts took over and she told the doc about her family history- with that information in hand the doctor scheduled Jori for a mammogram right away. The date her mammogram fell on was Friday, February 13th. The day before Valentines and two days after her husband, Jeff, had vocal chord surgery.
The way Jori describes her whole experience from mammogram to diagnosis was “surreal”. While she was getting her mammogram, the technician who started off cold and rough, transformed into a sweet and nurturing individual (causing Jori to wonder what she was seeing on the films). She went from the mammogram to an ultrasound where a different technician talking her through the process matter of factly said, ” Okay, this is not a cyst, lets get the radioligist and have her take a look”. The radiologist walked in, after looking at the pictures, and announced, “Based on my experience, it looks like you have breast cancer and we need to get you into a biopsy next week.” And that was it. Or, that is where it all started.
This is the moment that I envision myself just loosing my marbles if I was in her shoes. When I asked about that, Jori said she actually didn’t loose it at that point because the radiologist confirmed that she looked to be in the early stages and it was a good thing she caught it when she did….so there was some good news at that meeting. Jori’s husband wasn’t with her because he was recovering from his surgery and wasn’t allowed to talk for another week. So, she had to text the news to him- as she sat there waiting for the technicians to schedule her biopsy. After receiving all of the news and trying to digest it, she had to go to Target to purchase Valentines cards and goodies for her children (because she had put it off all week). She felt like she was living in a dream. Could this really be happening to her?
The biopsy was scheduled for Tuesday, February 17. Her appointments were smack in the middle of winter break and she was disappointed that her plans to take her kids to various amusement parks over the week had to be cancelled. Her biopsy was particularly difficult as they had to puncture her breast with a core needle (thick and long) to extract breast tissue. Her husband had to leave the room. Results were scheduled to come back on Thursday, so Jori did what most nervous moms would do, she took the kids to Disneyland on Wednesday. I say that in jest, because I don’t know how she was able to keep her wits about her while chasing her three kids around the happiest place on earth.
When the results came back on Thursday, she learned that she had a non-hormonal form of breast cancer. The fastest growing worst kind of cancer, but the easiest to kill. Each time she received news like this from her doctors, it was bitter sweet. Yes, it was cancer, but the easiest to kill. She did try to focus on the “positive” points throughout diagnosis and treatment. Since her growth was still small, she was offered a lumpectomy. But, after consulting several professionals in the field, she opted for a double mastectomy. She was given lists of things to consider and literature describing the process. But, after hearing you have cancer, how difficult would it be to focus on all of the details? Thankfully, she was referred to Dr. Carey Cullinane who was able to help guide her through the decisions such as whether to have a double mastectomy or lumpectomy and radiation instead. Dr. Cullinane proved to be an invaluable resource to Jori on many levels.
Three weeks after being diagnosed, Jori had her double mastectomy. As she got home from the hospital and was settling into her own bed, she received a call from Dr. Chan who was conducting DNA tests to discover if Jori had “mutations” in her BRCA 1 and 2 genes. Normal BRCA1 and BRCA2 are know as a class of genes that supress tumor growth. Women with mutations in this class of genes are 5 times more likely to be diagnosed with breast, ovarian cervical or uterine cancer. Click here for more information on BRCA 1 and 2. The news for Jori wasn’t good. Dr. Chan found that Jori had the mutation in her BRCA 1 gene.
Up to this point, Jori was incredibly strong and refused to start asking “Why me?” because she was incredibly relieved that she was the one with cancer and not one of her kids. Now, the walls came crumbling down. The presence of the BRCA1 mutation, made Jori worry that she would be at risk for another type of cancer down the road. The news was just too difficult to bear. Of course Jori didn’t let the news keep her down. She decided to schedule a radical hysterectomy- and is now recovering from that surgery. In between all of this she has had chemo, lost all her hair, had breast reconstruction and is finally looking forward to a complete recovery.
We talked for over an hour. Once again, I am only able to scratch the surface of what some mothers must endure to live and see their children grow old. I can’t imagine that any single one of us wouldn’t do the same, but isn’t it worth it to be thankful everyday that you wake up in perfect health? I am guilty of complaining about stiff neck, menstrual cramps or another load of laundry. But, I am so happy that I GET to complain about those things instead of chemotherapy, breast reconstruction, a hysterectomy and so on. Jori’s experience combined with the stories of Bryn and Lisa really do make me appreciate my life and my health. Thank you ladies for showing me what courage, optimism and life is all about.
On an end note. Before publishing this story, I shared it with Jori to confirm I had my facts correct. I got to thinking about how it might feel to share her story. Laying all of your personal information out for everyone to read can be somewhat scary. I imagine there is a point where you get tired of talking about your diagnosis and updating everyone on your progress. Nonetheless, I want to let Jori know that I appreciate her sharing and I did my own self breast exam right after I hung up the phone with her. I hope the rest of you do the same after reading this.