Fight of her life: A young woman's battle with triple-negative breast cancer
Jana Cox came to Legacy Cancer Institute worried about a cyst in her breast that wouldn’t go away. Cancer? It seemed a far-fetched improbability. After all, Jana is young, just 35 years old. She’s meticulous about her diet and exercise with no family history of breast cancer. She was shocked to hear the words “aggressive cancer” and “triple negative.” She also remembers hearing her doctor, Cory Donovan. M.D., say, “Here’s our treatment plan. We’re going to use all the guns.”
“As soon as you have a plan, you can put one foot in front of the other,” said Dr. Donovan, a breast surgeon at Legacy Cancer Institute. “It’s important for the patient to know the game plan and to know who’s on her team.” In Jana’s case, the treatment plan would begin with eight rounds of chemo followed by four weeks of radiation at Legacy Salmon Creek Medical Center.
What is triple negative?
Triple negative breast cancer accounts for approximately 15 percent of all breast cancer cases. It moves fast and does not respond to hormone therapy. Most cancer cells have receptors for estrogen, progesterone or HER2 and doctors can now treat those cancers by blocking the hormone receptors using oral medication. But triple negative breast cancer has no known link to any hormonal cause. Triple negative breast cancer is more likely to spread outside the breast tissue and more likely to recur after treatment. Short term survival rates are just 77 percent compared to 93 percent for women with hormone receptor cancers.
Chemo: the big gun
The best weapon for triple negative breast cancer is chemotherapy followed by radiation. Chemo targets cells that divide rapidly like the triple negative cancer cells. Unfortunately, the chemo also kills good cells that grow fast responsible for hair and tiny follicles in the stomach, lungs and even skin. “Chemotherapy,” says Dr. Donovan, “is a non-specific bomb which is why people hate it and it’s not an enjoyable experience. But in these cases, it’s the best weapon we have.”
From ‘Type A’ to chill
Jana started her chemo and took action right away. She shaved her head and had her eyebrows microbladed. She took a leave from Nike and made her treatment plan her new full-time job. “My job, I had lots of control. It’s what I did for a living. I was a planner. I planned things. I worked in factories, we had tight deadlines,” Cox said.
Now, Cox balances her day with medical appointments, gentle movement classes and acupuncture. “I wouldn’t have believed it possible six months ago,” Cox said. “There are many gifts that have happened with this cancer. I have to just sit back and let things happen. I can’t control … I’ve become impressively chill.” She’s even knitting and baking pies despite of the neuropathy in her hands because of chemo. The pies and socks are intricate in design –– clearly the work of a talented designer. “It’ll be fun to see what I can do once I get the feeling back in my fingers,” she said.
Who’s on your team
Now six months into treatment, Cox and Dr. Donovan have formed a strong bond; patient to doctor. Dr. Donovan knows first-hand, the fears and pains that go along with a triple negative diagnosis. She was diagnosed in 2015 and is now three years out; a healthy new mom with a new baby girl. “I think if you have to go through this, you need to have a team,” Dr. Donovan said. “If you have to fight this, you need people who will fight with you. You need your expert care team, your family, your friends.”
Cox said, “I’m very focused; I know I'm fighting for my life. But I also remember my doctor’s good advice to have get out and have fun when I can. My mom and I went on a road trip to Mt. Rushmore. We laughed so hard, got matching t-shirts; so much fun.”
Last week, Cox for the first time, put on a pink survivors’ sash; running the 5K Girlfriends for a Cure race in Vancouver. “I surprised myself,” she said. “I jogged until I thought I might fall because of the neuropathy and then I’d walk for a while and then I’d jog again.” It’s a pattern she uses in her daily life now. She pushes forward, catches her breath, cracks a joke and presses on with the help of her team.
The Legacy Cancer Institute can help answer your questions about breast cancer, mammograms, doctors near you.
For more information on this story, contact Legacy Health’s Kelly Love.