Editor’s note: In honor of October being National Breast Cancer Awareness Month, The Banner-Press is publishing a four-week series, “Think pink,” sharing the stories of community members who battled or are currently battling breast cancer. The Banner-Press masthead is also pink this week instead of its normal black to commemorate the month.
Jenny White’s lows over the course of the past three years have reached depths that are hard to fathom, but the head cook for Aquinas High School is a firm believer that her situation could always be worse.
Although this may be factually true, the rural Ulysses resident will have undergone nine surgeries by year’s end, more than 120 trips to Nebraska Medicine in Omaha, eight rounds of chemotherapy and 55 rounds of radiation – 30 for cancerous activity on her breasts and 25 for cancer that developed on her skull.
All of this stemmed from a July 2016 breast cancer diagnosis that flipped the mother of three’s life upside down. And yet, she doesn’t really ask herself why this happened to her, in fact, the question is really, why not?
“You just have to try to not feel sorry for yourself,” she said. “And people would say, ‘why you?’ And I would think, ‘why not me?’ You know, one in eight women will have breast cancer. And what would make me so special that it wouldn’t be me, I guess?”
She first found a lump in her breast in May 2016 while taking a shower, just as her son, Mitchell, was in the process of graduating from high school. The lump didn’t trigger an urgent response from White, who said she had just completed a mammogram the previous December, with the results looking just fine.
But every so often her hand would make its way back to the small lump and her mind became unsettled. By the time she visited the doctor in July and had a biopsy completed, she said that she had a sinking feeling in her stomach. The diagnosis, at that point, really didn’t come as a surprise, but it still was a tough pill to swallow.
“The heart just hit the feet, and you just know that this isn’t good,” White said.
Diagnosed with Stage 3B, Grade 3, breast cancer – that had already spread into her lymph nodes – White knocked out eight rounds of chemotherapy at Nebraska Medicine. It was the beginning of an unrelenting journey that is still far from over for White, who is in her second full school year working at Aquinas.
The burden was extreme but she was just glad that her kids, Garrett, now 13; Mitch, 21; and Becky, 24, weren’t the ones dealing with the aftermath of a chemo cocktail being flushed through their systems.
By the end of her first bout with cancer, she underwent three surgeries, having a port installed, a double mastectomy and finally, having implants placed into her chest.
She learned from doctors that when she went in for her December 2015 mammogram that she already had a 2.4-centimeter tumor in her left breast, but that dense tissue resulted in it being undetectable at the time.
‘My surgical oncologist described it as finding a snowball in a snowstorm,” White said. “So it was very hard for them to find the initial tumor.”
If she would have elected to have a single mastectomy removing her left breast, White would have been forced to receive frequent ultrasounds on the right side of her chest. This would have meant more trips to the doctor’s office and a potential insurance battle, something she didn’t want to be added to her plate.
She briefly went into remission in March 2017, but it all started up again on Christmas Eve the following year. The timing, she said, couldn’t have been worse, as Becky was preparing to get married four days later.
“I just happened to scratch the top of my breast and I felt a little pebble,” White said. “My husband was sitting there in the recliner and said, ‘what’s going on?’ And I said, ‘nothing, I just have an itch.’
She didn’t say anything to her family with the wedding around the corner, albeit she was all but certain Mike knew what was going on.
A trip to the oncologist in January confirmed what she suspected: The cancer – now metastatic – was back. There was the little tumor that her itch found, as well as a larger mass inside of her pectoral muscle. A PET scan determined that the disease had metastasized to her skull.
At the end of January, a lumpectomy removed the two new masses, followed by a piece of her skull being removed front the top of her head during the first part of February. A horizontal scar and indention are still readily visible on the bare portion of her scalp, which earlier this week she covered with her “This is my fight" hat.
In May she had her ovaries removed, as the doctors believe her cancer is hormone-driven. Later this month, she’s scheduled to have her skull re-opened because it didn’t heal completely before doctors started radiation treatment. In November, she is scheduled to have her breast implants replaced because one of them ruptured.
You have free articles remaining.
Like she said, if it’s not one thing, it’s another.
But, she finds ways to cope, to live her life. There are plenty of difficult days, days when she acknowledges she feels sorry for herself for a little bit. She said Mike is forced to endure this, and it beats him up, emotionally.
“… My husband has struggled with that a lot,” she said. “Just because he is a fixer, and he can’t fix this, you know?”
But every time she picks herself back up. Not on her own, but with the assistance of her family, friends, faith and medical team. Her job helps out a lot, too. She enjoys seeing the kids, one of which is Garrett, a seventh-grader. Once a week, she tapes up a ‘Jenny’s Life Lesson’ in the lunchroom for kids to see and, perhaps, take something away from.
“She is just a great example for our kids and the whole school,” said Father Sean Timmerman, chief administrative officer for Aquinas-St. Mary’s Catholic Schools.
Garrett on Monday made his way down to the cafeteria area at Aquinas before his upcoming football game and talked a little bit about his view of his mom’s battle. She’s one of his role models and he hates seeing her struggle.
“She’s very tough,” he said. ‘I’m very glad to have a tough mother like that. I could never have gone through what she went through. (There have been) Just a lot of needles that they have stuck in her.”
Garrett said he tries to harness some of his mom’s toughness and resilience when he is struggling with something or having a bad day. As with any teenager going through the school ranks, a brutal test that a student isn’t prepared for can feel about like the end of the world.
But his mom’s situation gives him some perspective.
“Nothing’s as hard as what mom has done,” he said.
Following a July 30 PET scan, White said her current classification is No Evidence of Disease, or what they call NED. She said she really isn’t positive if that means remission, but with her current situation, she isn’t sure if she will ever hear this classification again.
Twice daily she takes a regimen of Verzenio, which she will likely ingest for the rest of her life. The drug, she said, costs about $14,000 monthly.
“Thank goodness for good health insurance,” she said, through a text.
White acknowledges that she doesn’t know what the future holds. There are many uncertainties and in all likelihood, she will face more curveballs. But she believes that the situation is in God’s hands. And she tries to remind herself that she isn’t alone.
That other people out there are in a battle for their own lives.
“Somebody always has it worse,” White said. “… And it’s something where you have to not only have physical strength but mental and emotional strength. And it takes its toll … And you know, as tough as it is, life just doesn’t go as you plan it … What is it they say? Sometimes you make plans and God laughs.”
But, she said, somewhere along the way a decision has to be made about whether to back down or face adversity head-on.
“I pray every day I live to see Garrett graduate from high school and see my future grandkids,” she said. “And you just have to keep thinking that way, you know? You have to just take each day as it comes.”
Sam Pimper is the news editor of The Banner-Press. Reach him via email at email@example.com.