Susan Jeppesen was never scared. She wasn’t scared when she went in on Dec. 5 for her routine mammogram, something she never misses. She wasn’t scared when they asked her to come back and told her something was abnormal. And she wasn’t scared when a patient advocate was called into her exam room or when the phone call came from her own doctor with the news.
In that moment, Jeppesen crossed over the line between those of us who have always lived knowing about breast cancer and have worn pink in October — and those of us who have faced death at the hands of the disease and bear the scar of a chemotherapy port.
According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), 242,476 new cases of female breast cancer were reported in 2015 — the most recent year data is available; 2,954 of those cases were re-ported in Oregon. More than 40,000 women nationwide, died of the disease.
October serves as breast cancer awareness month, bringing attention to the disease that needs no introduction; it’s the highest funded cancer in regards to research, earning $519.9 million for its budget in 2016, according to the National Cancer Institute. It’s widely sponsored and has spurned organizations and non-profits like the Susan G. Komen Foundation and has turned retailer aisles pink with colored products meant to raise awareness and funds.
To mark the month, The Sentinel offered the opportunity for breast cancer survivors, current patients and those who have been affected by the disease to tell their stories. And because those stories are personal and fiercely intimate, they’ll be told those who have lived them, in their words, with very little interruption — because they are their stories.
This is Susan’s...
“I’ve been in Cottage Grove 30 years. I’m really active with the chamber, with the greeters. This year, I talked it over with Travis (Palmer, chamber of commerce director) and I got my di-agnosis in January and just decided this is the year of the doctor. So, I’ve just not been out and about because this year, with the chemo, you have a lower immune system and I just thought, ‘You know, I’m already up here, not around people, let’s just stay up here, not around people.’”
[“Up here” is Jeppesen’s home, hidden up a long and winding driveway patrolled by her dog Sunshine who, according to Jeppesen, helps visitors find their way up to the house that over-looks green grass patches shielded from the sun by the red, yellow and orange of autumn leaves.]
“I had a mammogram Dec. 5 and there was something suspicious and that was December. So they set me up with a second mammogram and an ultrasound Dec. 26 and, on Jan. 5, I had a biopsy. I believe it was either last Monday or Tuesday [Oct. 8 or 9] that I got the diagnosis — and the … it’s not just shock that you’re having something eating you, but the kindness of the people. The unbelievable kindness.”
[In 2016, PeaceHealth unveiled its new 3D mammography machine. The purchase had been the result of a community fundraising campaign after the previous machine was deemed obsolete. The hospital noted that the 3D technology would allow patients to undergo scans in Cottage Grove, rather than travelling to Eugene. The machine would also be able to detect potential health issues at an early stage. This is the machine Jeppesen had her initial scans on.]
“From the very beginning, you’re not left alone. My own doctor, Dr. Peterson, called me with the diagnosis and that had to be hard, very hard for someone. My surgeon was wonderful, my oncologist was wonderful. The very first time I met him I said, ‘What do I do? What’s the pro-cess?’ And he said, ‘Well, you answer the phone and you show up when you’re supposed to.’ So, I didn’t have to make my own appointments. Willamette Valley Cancer Institute in Eugene, you check in once and you’re cared for all the way through.
“An MRI is pretty much laying on a bed, in a tube with a jackhammer. It’s just noisy. It doesn’t hurt, it’s just noisy. Clank, clank, clank, clank. You have to have an MRI after the biopsy, to pin-point exactly where you are. So, you’re lying on your stomach with what feels like a 2x4 between your breasts and then they put you in with the jackhammer. But, there was just, you’re just taken care of every inch of the way.
“I’ve never ever been late for my mammogram. My husband passed away almost 10 years ago, so my job — so my children aren’t orphans — is to do whatever I’m supposed to. They caught this so early and it was growing very quickly.”
[According to the National Cancer Institute, breast cancer is the second most common cause of cancer death in America but the number of women who have died from the disease has been steadily declining since 1989 thanks to early detection.]
“There are different types of breast cancer and I have two different types. One is called triple negative because it isn’t this or that or this. Three negatives and there you are. It spreads on a cellular level and it’s very aggressive and it doesn’t need a tumor to get going. It just needs one little escapee. They did the surgery, which they very seldom do mastectomies anymore, they’ll do partials, everything has improved that much more.
[The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services reports that the number of double mastectomies tripled between 2005 and 2013 but have since been on the decline and a larger percentage of mastectomies in the cases of cancer have been requested by the patient. ]
“But 20 percent of what I have — had — is HR2, which is hormone related. Estrogen receptor and his handwriting is legible, so much better than mine. A doctor wrote that, isn’t that amaz-ing?”
[On a sheet of paper in the binder Jeppesen keeps full of meal delivery options, all of her diag-nosis paperwork and doctors’ contact information is a sheet of white paper with black ink scribbled over it explaining her diagnosis. The phrasing takes it away from the multi-syllable medical terms and brings it to one, simple conclusion written at the end of a line of explanation: “You are curable.”]
“I started every other week, two different types of chemo so that was eight weeks total and then I switched over to a medication and that was to be 12 weeks and then I had radiation af-ter that. It makes you very ill. The very first treatment, they have bays of chairs and I was told I’d be in this chair and it was a nurse with her back towards me and on the seat of her britches it said ‘rebel’ so I knew I’d be fine. It is, not everyone gets all the side effects. The only thing I missed was nausea. I had bleeding, fingernails, skin, shortness of breath — I don’t think I missed much. Sores in your mouth, food didn’t taste good. If it hadn’t been for the VanGorders, I may have starved to death because I literally could not cook.
“I have finished chemo and radiation. I was just starting to get all my energy back when I had to begin the hormone blocker and that has its own side effects.”
[The American Cancer Society reports that some types of breast cancer are affected by hormones in the blood. Some cancer cells have receptors that attach to estrogen, which helps them to grow. Hormone therapy is a way to stop estrogen from attaching to these receptors.]
“They caught it very early and treatment was aggressive. I had a port, you can still see the scar a little bit. You have this little lump under your skin and they hit it with a thumbtack so they can feed the medication into you without having to find a vein each time. It’s already there, it’s a hole, it’s ready to go. I ended up with a blood clot in my jugular vein but I went on blood thinner and it took care of it. I got off pretty easy with the blood thinners — I had a few falls. That Feb-ruary we had some black ice and I walk my dog every morning. I think I’ve missed one morning since I’ve been sick but I put my foot down on the metal divider on the bridge and down I went.
“What they tell you when you have your final treatment and what you don’t really believe until you’re there is, ‘Congratulations, this is your last day but it’s going to continue to burn and get a lot worse over the next couple of weeks’ and my goodness, it does.
“We have no family history of cancer and so it’s, you know, ‘oh breast cancer, yeah that’s too bad’ and then suddenly you’re there. But, my sister and all three of my daughters got their mammograms within a month after I was diagnosed. It’s, you just go through the gate and suddenly you’re not the same person you were.”
Editor’s Note: This interview was edited for length and clarity. If you or someone you know would like to share your breast cancer story with The Sentinel, please email [email protected]