Jennifer: Healing at Full Speed

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One of the great passions Jennifer D. and her husband Dave share is a love of horse racing; a fun and rewarding sport with elements of speed, power, and beauty.

But there was a time not long ago after she had been diagnosed with breast cancer when Jennifer was like a thoroughbred that could not even get out of the starting gate. It was less than month after her 39th birthday. She was frozen. Devastated.

Talk about a comeback.

The Race Ahead

In the summer of 2009, Jennifer, of Parkville, Maryland, began experiencing a throbbing pain in her left breast that would come and go. Like a sixth sense, she knew something wasn’t right.

“I’d just be talking to someone and then the stabbing would come along just under the area where the underwire of a bra would be situated,” she said.

She had been told by doctors that her left breast was denser than her right, and for years before that she had what doctors said was “tender breasts.” Because of that, she was already having regular examinations. “People usually don't even get their first mammogram until they’re 40,” Jennifer noted. “I pushed it and asked my gynecologist to let me start having them done at 35 and I kept going back regularly. I was very fortunate. If I’d waited until 40 I would not be talking to you right now.”

The results of those exams didn’t hint of the difficult race Jennifer was yet to run. Her gynecologist told her that tender breasts were common. The radiologist at the radiology company told her in March that she was just showing more calcifications, which was normal. Not to worry.

But she did.

“It was out of the ordinary,” she said. “It would just come and go when it wanted to. I could be doing absolutely nothing and then bam, there it was throbbing and stabbing at me.”

The pain persisted. “Nothing would keep it from hitting me,” Jennifer said, “no matter what I did.” After completing a routine six-month follow-up with the radiology company in September, a biopsy was recommended. Originally, it was to be performed at a local radiological center, but instead, Jennifer said she wanted it done at a ”real” hospital. So she scheduled the procedure at a medical facility where she’d seen excellent doctors for years. When the results came back, they confirmed her feelings and fears.

It was breast cancer.

Like a trainer choosing which race to run in, and at which track to run their horse, Jennifer did not just choose the first doctor from the facility where she’d had her initial biopsy. She studied her options. In October, after a long morning of waiting to see an initial specialist, she stuck to her plan of consulting a second doctor that same afternoon. That second doctor was an expert who both a close friend and a neighbor had raved about.

Choosing a Track

With test results and MRI in hand from the first facility, Jennifer chose a winner. The afternoon appointment was at Mercy Medical Center, with Dr. Neil Friedman, Medical Director of Mercy’s Hoffberger Breast Center. “I knew right away that Dr. Friedman would be my surgeon and that I would have everything done at Mercy,” she said. “I was just comfortable with Mercy, and I was impressed with Dr. Friedman. He had a thorough game plan.”

Before that plan could be launched, there were more biopsies, MRIs, and tests. Then, as a first step, a lumpectomy was performed in December 2009, and that’s when Jennifer discovered the severity of the course she would have to run - intraductal infiltrating breast cancer, stage II. In January he performed a mastectomy. During that same surgery, Dr. Brendan Collins of Mercy’s Breast Reconstruction and Restoration Center inserted a tissue expander. Less than a year later, Dr. Collins would perform implant surgery to reconstruct her breast.

Of course, Jennifer’s entire experience has been more like a long distance race than just a few furlong sprints. In fact, her journey is what Jennifer calls a “a confluence” - a number of challenges that came together. The challenges included three surgeries and six rounds of chemotherapy in less than a year. And just to make her trial a little more interesting, Jennifer insisted on having more chemo treatments than doctors had initially recommended. “I wanted to be sure it was gone and would never return,” she said. Dr. David Riseberg, Jennifer's oncologist at Mercy, agreed to her plea.

Despite all that was going on, Jennifer kept moving forward, one step at a time. During the chemo treatments, she said, she walked daily and ate right so she “wasn’t down for the count.”

She also had some inspirations; signs that told her she not only would be okay, but that eventually she’d be running again at full-speed.

Support From the Sidelines

As part of their shared passion, Jennifer and Dave sometimes invest in racehorses, and two of those horses hold a special place in Jennifer’s recovery.

The first was a horse named Cashew Cat, who, during her chemo treatments, would let Jennifer calmly scratch her ears and do things such as put her head on the horse’s without the horse moving. “I believe the spiritual/friend relationship you get with a horse helped me heal,” she said. “It definitely made me smile and relax just to visit them.”

Jennifer’s other equine supporter was a horse named Polish Dynamite, a chestnut gelding she and Dave owned. Jennifer had bonded with “Polish,” on their first meeting when she fed him carrots after the horse was making a ruckus because she was at the other end of the barn giving all her treats to Cashew. This was despite warnings from those around the barn that Polish was “mucho loco” – very crazy. “All he needed was some love,” Jennifer said. He returned it.

In June 2010 as Jennifer was nearing the end of her chemotherapy she was also nearing the end of her endurance for the treatments. It happened that Polish Dynamite was running a race at Colonial Downs racetrack in Virginia and Jennifer and Dave went to cheer him on. Before the race Jennifer visited the barn, and as she had many times before she had a talk with her friend. “I’d say, who is the champion? Who is going to win today? Who is going to run down those horses and show them who is boss?”

Polish Dynamite was. On that day he came from seven lengths back to win in a rare dead heat photo finish. “It was nothing short of a miracle,” Jennifer said.

“We were not only pleased with the race result, but we were very happy because the jockey wore a pink ribbon that was placed on his left shoulder, ironically the same side that I had the breast cancer. Polish didn't know it, but he’d become a supporter of the cure too.”

As she talks about getting a lift, Jennifer’s story continually makes its way back to Mercy Medical Center. “I’ve been through a rough trip the last couple of years,” she noted. “I could not have done this, could not be here, without Mercy.”

Her strength is pretty much back at full tilt. She’s started a new position as a loan officer for a mortgage company/credit union. She feels good. She is cancer free.

Finishing Strong

As Jennifer discusses her illness, her treatment, her life, her husband Dave interrupts. He too has stories. He has sat in waiting rooms and has gone over test results and held Jennifer when she needed it. “She’s a beautiful woman,” he shouts out from behind her as she talks. “Gorgeous.”

The one thing they both agree on is that Mercy helped them immensely.

“The whole experience was phenomenal,” Jennifer said. “Not having cancer, of course, but if you have it, Mercy is the right place to get the best expertise to fix it. I know I was fortunate enough to have the best.”

Jennifer said the best example she can give of what she means when she says that Mercy Medical Center is “amazing” is that during her treatment period whenever the phone rang very early in the morning or later in the evening at home she always knew it would be a doctor from Mercy. “Every time I go to Mercy I not only get smiles, sometimes I get high fives as well as and hugs and kisses from just about any of the staff who know me. It’s like seeing long-time friends and family. It’s very uplifting.

“It’s really important to me too to let the surgical team and the nurses know, that I know they are behind the doctors,” she added. “They are a team and they are the best in the world. They’ve all seen me cry and squirm when it came time for a needle or when it came time to try to clean my old port for chemo and they’ve seen me laugh and wipe away the tears. They saved my life, and for that I am forever grateful.”

Jennifer is beaming now, you can even hear it through the phone. Her energy is back, her strength, her resolve. She’s talking with confidence. Dave is still behind her adding comments and clarity, but Jennifer is in charge, like a thoroughbred headed into the final turn with a big lead. She’s on her way to the winner’s circle.

“The entire staff at Mercy was unsurpassed from world-renowned doctors all the way to the security guards,” she added. “You have to understand that every single person no matter what they do in that facility had a positive impact on me and still does every time I walk through their doors. They truly deliver what the Sisters of Mercy set out to do in their mission: Like the Sisters of Mercy before us, we witness God’s healing love for all people by providing excellent clinical and residential services within a community of compassionate care.”

“That says it all. God brought me to it,” Jennifer concluded, “and God got me through it with the Sisters of Mercy and their talented and generous team of experts who grace their halls.”

The Hoffberger Breast Center at Mercy offers comprehensive breast care, thoughtfully designed for women undergoing the journey to overcome breast disease.