Jennifer’s Story as told by Melinda Neeley
A Tug on My Shirttail, a Push at My Heels
My breast cancer story is a little extraordinary. I did not
discover a lump, have other breast cancer symptoms or get
diagnosed based on the reading of a yearly mammogram. Instead,
my experience began with an “intuition,” or nagging
sensation that kept pushing me to get checked. This intuitive
feeling continued for several days and would not subside.
I was only 34 at the time, still a bit underage to begin regular
mammogram checkups. My age, along with the fact that I had
no symptoms, made it puzzling that I was feeling such an urgent
need to be checked.
Finally, on one of my days off, this urge became so incessant
that I scheduled a mammogram. Within just two days after the
pictures were taken, I was called back in for more X-rays.
Although I am usually very unsuspecting in nature, I was shocked
when the doctor informed me that she needed further diagnostic
mammograms to take a closer look at some suspicious calcifications
in my left breast. What was a calcification? I thought. I
didn’t know anything about this. I was horrified that
my films looked suspicious, but convinced myself that it was
nothing. After the diagnostic pictures were reviewed, things
moved very quickly, and the doctor scheduled me for an immediate
biopsy. It was shortly thereafter that I was diagnosed with
breast cancer. The course of action included a lumpectomy
and 33 radiation treatments, but thankfully, I did not lose
my breast. Although this sudden chain of events was devastating,
at the same time I felt very thankful and blessed that the
cancer was found early.
Thinking back now, cancer has probably always been a bit
of a concern for me and other members of my family because
it drastically stunted the growth of our family tree. My father's
mother died of breast cancer when she was only 35. At only
7 years old, Dad didn’t quite understand that the course
of his life was about to change forever. He would be forced
to live the rest of his life without the nurturing arms or
gentle guidance of a mother.
His mother’s cancer was the beginning of a terrible
domino effect on the family. After she died, my grandmother’s
sister developed and won the battle with breast cancer in
her 40’s, but later died of colon cancer when she was
in her 80’s. All three of her other siblings died of
pancreatic or pancreatic-liver cancer. Other family members
tried to come up with theories for this high familial cancer
rate, one being that is was caused from a swimming hole contaminated
by factory chemicals that the siblings swam in when they were
children. But later, the domino effect began again. A second
cousin died from a combination of multiple myeloma and breast
cancer, and another second cousin fought and survived her
battle with thyroid cancer.
The pattern continued when my 37-year-old first cousin was
diagnosed with breast cancer about 8 years ago. At only 29,
she consequently had to undergo a double mastectomy with reconstructive
surgery. Her cancer was discovered by chance when her gynecologist
felt a large irregularity in one of her breasts during a routine
examination. This ultimately saved her life. Her diagnosis
occurred just a few years before mine.
Due to this outbreak of familial cancer, much of which has
occurred during early to middle adulthood years, it has always
been in the back of my mind that these vicious cancers might
have hereditary causes. But there was never any hard evidence
– that is, until my aunt decided to take action.
Bound and determined to find out what the culprit was, my
aunt entered herself into a cancer genetics study. As both
the mother and daughter of women with breast cancer, my dad’s
sister was on the warpath. She has always been the backbone
of the family – the one everyone turns to for advice,
strength and joy, so it was not surprising that she chose
to do this. She wanted to find reasons why her family has
suffered, and to put an end to the tragic cancer saga, so
she became part of a study at UAMS in Little Rock. She allowed
genetic specialists to do studies on the family to try to
pinpoint the cause of the cancers – not just of the
breast – but of all of the cancers. It was becoming
very apparent that they were all linked.
During this study, it was recommended that a blood test be
performed on my first cousin to see if she carried the BRCA1
or BRCA2 gene mutation. She tested positive for BRCA2, solving
the mystery of why cancer has been invading our family for
so many years. Through diagrams and studies, doctors traced
the gene back to my great-great grandmother and grandmother.
They explained how this mutation can disable the tumor-fighting
ability in certain parts of your body, giving you an 85% chance
of developing breast cancer as well as higher risks for various
other cancers including ovarian, pancreatic, prostrate and
thyroid. Being positive for this gene also means there is
a 50% chance that you will pass the gene on to your children,
they explained. Based on this information, my aunt and my
father decided to be tested, and both had positive results
for BRCA2. At that point, it was clear: the other three of
my aunt’s children, my two sisters, and myself had a
50% chance of having this genetic defect.
My other three cousins were tested and, thankfully, they
were all negative. My oldest sister was also negative. My
other sister and I haven't been tested yet, but I strongly
believe I already carry the gene since I developed breast
cancer at a young age.
For someone who does carry the gene but has not yet been
diagnosed with cancer, there is much hope. Prophylactic measures
such as mastectomy and/or oopherectomy, can be taken along
with the option of taking cancer prevention medication. Although
these are hard choices that should be made very carefully
based on various health conditions, age and emotional state,
at least there are choices available.
Through all of this I have learned that preventive measures
outside of regular checkups just aren’t yet part of
the protocol for younger women. To date, women under 40 are
not advised to have mammograms due to the density of their
breast tissue, and although ultrasound would be another option
for detection, this normally isn’t recommended for young
women unless their own mother or sister has had breast cancer.
So, unfortunately, discovering breast cancer in a young woman
normally occurs by chance or mistake, and often, as in my
cousin’s case, it has already progressed to a later
stage, leaving only radical options. I was an exception, but
only due to a gut instinct. That is why I would like to see
women monitored more closely – especially when they
have “suspicious” family histories like mine—histories
scattered with various cancers, not necessarily of the breast,
and not necessarily in a mother or sister, but histories that
are saturated with the disease. Before my diagnosis, the closest
relative I had with breast cancer was my grandmother, so I
was not considered high risk. However, the rest of my extended
family was ridden with cancer – a great indicator that
something was genetically wrong.
I am thankful that I caught this early, and hopefully, it
won't come back. My doctor, Dr. James Hagans of Little Rock,
has been great. A wonderful physician and human being, I really
think a lot of him because of his gentle and spiritual nature.
What he did for me the day of my lumpectomy will always remain
with me. When it was time for me to go back for my surgery
he gently told me he had said a prayer for me that morning.
That meant a lot and I felt at ease as soon as he told me
I encourage anyone who has breast cancer in his or her family
to be checked. My doctors always told me in the past I didn't
have anything to worry about because breast cancer was on
my dad’s side. With the BRCA2 gene, however, it can
be passed down from either parent.
I have been through a lot since I had breast cancer. They
took more biopsy samples than what they had originally planned,
which was frightening and uncomfortable. I also had two needles
inserted into my breast before surgery instead of just one,
and I developed an allergic reaction to the radiation gel.
In addition, the Tamoxifen I'm taking as a cancer preventative
has put me into early menopause at age 35. But my faith in
God has helped me through it all.
I am convinced it was God, and perhaps a guardian angel or
two, who kept tugging on my shirttail and pushing at my heels,
urging me to get checked at such an early age. Without symptoms,
it was only through His guidance that the cancer was caught
at Stage 0, thus giving it no opportunity to spread. My advice
to all women is to get thorough checkups, get genetic testing
whenever there is a strong family history of ANY type of cancer,
and no matter what age you are – always listen to God,
to your body, to the revelations and wisdom of others, and
to your intuition – because I have decided these things
can all be one and the same: God’s way of speaking to
us. And, when God speaks, it always gives us the power to
Mrs. Ethridge is now a 4-year cancer survivor. She is a Management
Project Analyst for a human development center in Arkansas,
and lives with her husband, Randy, and 16-year-old son, Jacob.
Melinda Neeley is the sister of Mrs. Ethridge. She is an
Arkansan freelance writer whose inspirational stories have
appeared in several publications and ezines, including Ascent
Aspirations Magazine, www.lifetoolsforwomen.com, www.healingwordspress.com,
www.expressionsofsoul.com, and www.christian-parent.com. In
2005, her story, “From the Hollow of a Bell,”
appeared in a short story anthology titled, Clerestory: a
Windowed Wall, published by DLSIJ Press. Her latest inspirational
projects, “Inside Out” and “The Cemetery
Women,” are to be released in 2007 in Leaps of Faith:
Out of the Heart Women Speak, the first book in a series of
inspirational stories written by Christian women from all
over the world.