Jen: Breast Cancer Survivor
I can't remember life without cancer being a constant shadow lurking in the distance. I was diagnosed with my first cancer, Wilms' tumor, in 1973 at the age of 2. I had one kidney removed and received chemotherapy and radiation. Because of this, I was never afforded the misconception that "it won't happen to me."
I was 11 when cancer ripped a permanent whole in my heart by stealing my mother - at just 38 years old she died of Leukemia. I also had a large scar across my stomach as a daily reminder of what I had been through, of what I may have to go through again. It was in 2001, 6 months to the day after completing my first marathon, that I was diagnosed with breast cancer. I was in the best physical shape of my life and was feeling empowered by having set and achieved my 26.2 mile goal. Cancer did not fit in and I wasn't going to let it get in my way. After a bilateral mastectomy, several reconstructive surgeries and many prayers, the cancer was again a memory.
Having the experience I did with cancer at such a young age taught me to enjoy every moment of life. I aim to have a positive attitude and believe that since I beat the disease before, I can beat it again and again. I developed a concept I referred to as my "Year without Fear." During this time many changes were occurring in my life and I decided that fear was no longer going to be in the forefront. I am somewhat of a thrill seeker and took a few new risks, including buying my first motorcycle and becoming a member of the Connecticut Roller Derby. This gave me the opportunity to release some stress and also focused me physically and mentally. I was having the time of my life!
Then, in August, 2006, during a derby scrimmage, I took a hit from one of my teammates, went airborne and landed hard on my right side. It turned out that my ribs had dislocated and the bones in the center of my chest and under my arm were protruding. My ribs were fixed but a bump remained under my arm. A PET scan detected nothing, but I had a biopsy just to be safe. Sure enough, further testing revealed that my cancer had returned and the tumor was twice as large as before. It had gone undetected by hiding in my pectoral muscle and was only able to be felt when my ribs shifted during the fall. The tumor was removed and on December 10, 2006 I was cleared to play in my first and final Roller Derby bout. Having the support of my family, friends, and teammates made it one of the most amazing nights of my life. Because of my mental determination, and the support I received, I was able to show up and fight.
It never seemed fair that I had to live my life with a constant fear of cancer, but I know now that I can handle anything. I have survived to see the advancements being made at places like Yale Cancer Center. I can remember vividly what treatment was like over 30 years ago and know how much it has changed for the better since then. Fear will never get in my way of setting and reaching new goals. Three days prior to starting five weeks of radiation I flew to Arizona with my sister and ran a half-marathon. Remaining strong physically is what has allowed me to remain strong mentally as well.
I try to keep the word "cancer" out my thoughts and concentrate instead on being healthy. It helps knowing there are people out there that believe in you. I wasn't ready to quit roller derby altogether so I co-created a weekly endurance roller-skating class called Rollerdurance. It gives women who have injuries or can't play full contact a chance to still experience the endurance aspect of roller derby. People will be amazed with themselves if they learn to push past what they think they cannot do. Cancer is simply another challenge in life; one that I know I can conquer.