Survivor Stories -- Jenifer Pokorski
In July of 2012 at the age of 40, I was diagnosed with Stage 3, Grade 3 Triple Negative breast cancer (TNBC) in my left breast. I am BRCA negative with no family history of cancer. I went through 16 weeks of chemo (Taxol and Adriamycin) followed by a radical bilateral mastectomy and 6 weeks of radiation. Before radiation was complete, I noticed a lump the size of a marble growing on my mastectomy scar line. My doctors thought it was scar tissue, so they took it out without checking for clean margins or doing a biopsy before removal.
After it was removed, I developed a hole in my chest where the tumor had been growing. It would not heal and became infected--twice! I had to pack the hole with gauze twice a day for 6 months in an attempt to close the wound. When it would not close, my doctor sent me to Stanford, and they finally diagnosed the open wound as a local recurrence. I had to do another 16 weeks of chemo (Carboplatin and Gemzar) followed by another major surgery where the doctors discovered 2 more tumors in my chest, one that had metastasized to my skin and one that had attached itself to my chest wall. During surgery, they zapped me with intraoperative radiation and relocated my latissimus dorsi muscle to my chest and did a graft using skin from my back to replace the skin on my chest. Surgery was followed by 5 more weeks of radiation done at the same time as another chemo drug, Xeloda, that would help enhance the radiation.
Two months later, in July 2014, my armpit becomes sore and swollen, so back down to Stanford I went for scans. They discover a 3cm lymph node, perform a biopsy and sure enough it's Triple Negative breast cancer again! That's when I was bumped up to Stage 4. They gave me more chemo and then allowed a six week break so that I could have surgery in January 2015. Nine lymph nodes were removed, but luckily only 1 was affected.
In the meantime, I discover a lump near my ribs on the left side of my body. The lump is located where I once had a previous drain site. I travel to Stanford for my pre-op appointment only to find out I need a biopsy which comes back positive once again for TNBC! They call it "seeded from the drain," meaning one tiny cell could have been on my drain and when it was removed, it stayed behind creating yet another tumor. Luckily they were able to remove it at the same time as my lymph nodes. I then undertook a third round of radiation along with Xeloda to enhance it. I finished treatment at the end of April 2015 and had my first clean and clear scan on August 20, 2015. After all was said and done I ended up with 3 cracked ribs due to radiation. They have been healing slowly but could take several more years to heal completely. Having radiation so many times in the same spot compromises the bone and everything that surrounds it.
I am currently enjoying the wonderful state of NED -- No Evidence of Disease. After six years of battling cancer, it's like music to my ears to hear the doctor say NED after the terrifying news that you have Stage 4! Spending three solid years with weekly visits to an oncologist both in and out of town turned into every other week, then once a month and now once every 3-6 months. I sometimes find myself wondering what now?? The doctors just throw you out into the world with no guidance, no manual on how to live life after cancer. Going back to the old me wasn't possible, because I don't even know who that person is. She doesn't exist anymore and falling into the "new" normal... well, I'm not sure what that is either. I had a hard time dealing with my changed and scarred body. I couldn't do things I once did and that was frustrating especially since I gained a total of 70 lbs during all of my treatments! People don't understand the inner heartbreaks and struggles that so many of us survivors face. Some would say "well good thing that's over!" Or, "at least you get a new set of boobs!" Or, how about this one, and I quote "you're still not done with that yet?"
I lost my job of 10 years while battling for my life and have been on disability ever since. Still to this day I think "what is it I will be able to do when I'm off disability?? Who would even want to hire me?" The worry of a recurrence still lurks in the back of my mind.
And then one day I was asked to participate in Breast Cancer 2 Bikini (B2B). My first thought "UHHH NOOO! I am not putting on a bikini!" My second thought HELL NO! But after being talked into it which I won't lie took a little coaxing, I decided to go all in. It turned out to be one of the best, most amazing decisions I have ever made! My trainer Mena pushed me hard but never gave up on me and always believed in me, even when I didn't believe in myself. I worked hard, lost 52 lbs and met the most amazing group of ladies who were all survivors too! We laughed, we cried, we worked out, and we leaned on each other for support. I took my life back in a way I never thought would be possible. I feel like I'm living life again not just going through the motions. Although I would never want or choose to have cancer, it has given me some of the most amazing opportunities I could have ever imagined! I have met people who I can call lifelong friends, and it has opened my eyes to the beauty that is all around me! I found my inner strength in order to survive and it feels great! THERE IS LIFE AFTER CANCER!