Congratulations to Jennifer McDonald

Congratulations to Jennifer McDonald of Blacksburg, Virginia. She has been chosen to be on the 2014 New Balance Honorary Team, representing the Virginia Blue Ridge Affiliate of Susan G. Komen. The team is made of breast cancer survivors across the country and each Affiliate is allowed to select one local survivor to be on this honorary team. We are proud to select Jennifer as the 2014 Virginia Blue Ridge’s team member! Her courage and amazing story is sure to inspire others – “athletes” or not!

For more information on the New Balance program, click HERE.

Here is Jennifer’s story in her own words:

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It all started one morning in May 2013 as I rushed home from the pool from a training swim.  While I was getting ready for work I started my usual  stretching routing, and found myself wondering about my swim times.  I am a competitive triathelete, and ever since my preventative mastectomy I  noticed my lap times just never seemed to get any faster. It was two years since my husband and I made that life-altering decision to remove those ticking time bombs from my body, and the “new me” was still pretty tight. Muscle and skin were moved. Maybe that was it?  As I stretched and messed around with the muscle I felt a small lump. What??? I felt again and noticed it was on the outer side of my breast and toward my armpit (what I would  learn to later known as “the three o’clock” position).  Weird.  I had my husband feel it to make sure I was not crazy.  I assumed it must be scar tissue from the previous surgery but after finding out in October of 2010 that I was BRCA2+ I knew I had to get this checked out.

It was the fall of 2010 when my life took a serious detour. That year I began employment with a group of cancer doctors, and the word CANCER  seemed just about everywhere.  It was also a pretty big part of my own family tree as I come from a family full of breast cancer.  My mom was one of 7 others in her father’s bloodline with breast cancer.  Even a male cousin was diagnosed with breast cancer. So while I knew my breasts were potentially dangerous objects, it was only that fall that I realized I could be tested. It was then that I took the drastic step to remove them, and create new ones.

My first step was to get a professional to touch the lump. I saw my breast surgeon’s nurse practitioner who also felt the spot and felt sure it was a cyst, scar tissue, or something with my implant.  After all, a prophylactic bilateral mastectomy left me with much less than 10% chance of getting breast cancer.  However, since feeling is not seeing she sent me for an ultrasound.  The radiologist could not see for certain what the lump was.  He offered me the option to biopsy the next day or wait and see if the spot changed. I am pretty sure he also thought “There is no way she can have cancer.” I laughed and told him “I don’t wait on anything related to my breast health.”

The next day was my biopsy, and also the weekend to go to Boone, NC where I rode in the annual Blood Sweat and Gears 50 mile bike race.  I felt fine and had felt great when I set a PR (personal record) just weeks before in a very challenging half marathon and had recently competed in a sprint triathlon.   But to be honest, I had a very unsettled feeling during the biopsy and in the days of waiting.

It seemed like weeks before I got the call.   I will never forget the day the phone rang.  From the moment the radiologist identified himself I knew it was bad news.  “I am sorry Mrs. McDonald but your biopsy shows cancer.”  I felt like I was going to pass out, I felt anger, I was confused and I was thinking it had to be wrong!  How did I get cancer after all I had done to NOT get cancer????

I had done all the right things!  Growing up in a family full of breast cancer and male cardiovascular disease I was determined to beat the odds!  I had always exercised and maintained a healthy diet.  Knowing lifestyle cannot change the BRCA2 gene  but I reasoned my highly tuned body must count for something! I had even took it a step further and submitted my perfectly normal breast to prophylactic bilateral mastectomy.  How was this happening? I quickly called my husband, my sister and Dr. Fintel, (my medical oncologist and personal friend). I could not, however, bring myself to call mom, a two time breast cancer survivor.  I was just too devastated and I knew she would be as well.

It is hard to describe the roller coaster of emotions that I experienced from that point.  Sadly with cancer you don’t get all of your answers and your treatment plan up front.  I left for a long-planned family cruise that weekend.  The only information I had was that I was probably ER+ and Her2-. It appeared my lymph nodes were not involved but no one knew for sure. It was an intermediate grade cancer, not slow growing but not super aggressive.  Prior to meeting with my breast surgeon I had to have a MRI to confirm there were no other tumors and the right breast was clean.  Following that I met when the breast surgeon and we scheduled my lumpectomy. She was very positive and told me I had a survivable cancer.  After surgery, the critical information starts to flow, like hormone receptor status, sentinel lymph node results, a final pathology report and ultimately the another genetic test called the Oncotype Dx.

That genetic test “fingerprints” the hot and cold genes of the tumor itself.  These are very different genes than BRCA 1 and 2.  A woman, or man for that matter, doesn’t inherit these genes.  They are the result of mutations in crucial signaling and growth genes inside the cancer. A high score means extra therapy.  A low score means less therapy. A middle score leaves you stuck with making the decision based on your instincts, and wouldn’t you know it mine was in the middle.  But for me, I knew the genes were the key to this whole mess. When the score was NOT LOW, I was left with no other choice. It was time to jump into the chemo pool, at the deep end! I knew my future plan would also include 10 years of tamoxifen, a drug that blocks estrogen from tickling the cancer cells. Unlike some breast cancer patients where chemotherapy is the only tool in the toolbox, I had the extra  benefit to do both kinds of treatment, and the assurance of doing EVERYTHING I could to be around for my husband and kids.

During this ordeal I have been determined to maintain my healthy lifestyle and continue to focus on my running, swimming, biking, yoga and overall conditioning.  Three weeks after my lumpectomy I negotiated with my breast surgeon to begin running again. She had originally told me 6 weeks but I was getting depressed and NEEDED to run!  Prior to starting my chemotherapy I competed in a local 5k.  I was not super-fast but it was a huge accomplishment for me following surgery and I was fast enough to place in my age group.  Between my first and second cycle of chemo I entered another local 5k for fallen officers’ families.  Once again, not a PR running time but good enough to place 2nd in my age group.  These races had nothing to do with earning accolades but to prove to myself that cancer was NOT beating me; I was beating cancer!  And fitness training to all of you who are exercise fanatics is the ultimate way to cope with stress. Nothing helps the emotional roller coaster of going through a cancer quite like a good run!

-Jennifer McDonald