CureTalk Interview: Jennifer McCrea, Breast Cancer Survivor Talks Double- Mastectomy, Breast Re-construction and Marathon Running
Jennifer McCrea is a breast cancer survivor who took up running after she was declared cancer-free! Have we all not heard, how debilitating and fatigue inducing cancer treatment is? Not just any runner, Jenn is a marathoner! Read on to know about her unique journey involving mothering young kids, double mastectomy and eventual breast re-construction.
Me: You were diagnosed with breast cancer in 2011? What were the symptoms that led you to see the doctor?
Jenn: My family has a strong history of ovarian cancer and breast cancer. I have known that I am a carrier of the BRCA 1 cancer gene mutation since 2005. Since I was 27 years old I went for yearly breast and ovarian screenings (MRI/mammogram/ultrasound/etc).
It was in the breast MRI in May of 2011 that detected a little line that was not on my previous MRI. Two months later after a MRI guided breast biopsy I was diagnosed with breast cancer at stage zero.
Knowing my family history and knowing that I had the BRCA gene mutation and going for the screenings saved my life. The one thing I would like people to realize that cancers in patients that have the BRCA cancer gene mutation grow much faster and are often much, much more aggressive than the rest of the population’s cancers.
Me: What made you take up running post breast cancer? Was fatigue, something that is the fallout of the cancer treatment, difficult to overcome? How did you do it?
Jenn: Running was one of the things in my life that for years I couldn’t do and I told myself that. “I can’t run I just can’t.” After my doctor deemed me cancer free on August 18, 2011 I told myself to take the words “I can’t” out of my vocabulary and one step at a time I became a runner.
The fatigue that I suffered from the cancer treatment of tamoxifen that endured was one of the most debilitating things I have ever experienced. I could barely get off the couch and my youngest son had just started running, I do not believe that he ever just walked. I took it one day at a time and forced myself to be active even if it meant dragging myself off the couch and dragging my kids to the gym and was only able to walk for 10 minutes a day on the treadmill I considered that a victory. The worst thing one can do when fighting fatigue is rest. Everyone tells you to rest, however I found the more I rested the more tired I became. I had a goal of running my first half marathon in May of 2012 and nothing was going to stop me from crossing that finish line. The fatigue would lift and then come back for months and weeks at a time.
Until in April of 2012 was the last time I had to deal with the fatigue. I also used acupuncture to treat my fatigue as well as consuming a lot of electrolytes.
Me: A double mastectomy. Was it a difficult decision to take? Were there any fears that you harbored?
Jenn: It was one of the easiest decisions I have ever had to make in my life. Keep the breasts that were going to kill me or have the double mastectomy and save my life. At the time of my diagnosis my sons were age 3 and age 9 months and as my husband told me after my surgery “our family needs you here not your breasts.” That was what I told myself and it was a very black and white decision that I have not regretted once. The only fear that I harbored was the fear of not waking up from the surgery. I woke up and I was singing to myself “Alive” by Pearl Jam.
Me: Breast reconstruction, was it something that you decided to do post your double mastectomy? What was the procedure that you opted for? Any side effects or difficulties that you faced?
Jenn: The minute I was told I had breast cancer I knew that I wanted reconstruction. However the wait times in Calgary, AB, Canada at the time to see a plastic surgeon were lengthy. I had the bi-lateral mastectomy in August 2011 and lived for a year flat as a board, and rocked the look. In August of 2012 I went in for and had reconstruction with chest expanders put in. Those stayed with me for over a year and I just recently had the expanders exchanged for my actual permanent implants last month in October.
The side effects that I suffered from were post surgery brain fog from the anesthetic. Otherwise I was literally up and running again within days of my last two surgeries. I had difficulty with my range of motion and some breathing issues with the chest expanders, when they were exchanged last month I literally felt like a ginormous weight had been lifted off my chest. The difficulty that I have had with all 3 of the breast surgeries is that I have some good scarring where the incisions were made, however I keep reminding myself: “Never be ashamed of a scar. It simply means you were stronger than whatever tried to hurt you.”
Me: Is there any current treatment regime that you have?
Jenn: I am currently on my 2nd of 5 years of Tamoxifen. The rest of my treatment regime consists of swimming, biking, and running.
Me: A cancer survivor and a marathon runner. Now that’s a unique combination. How do you manage to do it?
Jenn: Every step that I have taken having since my breast cancer diagnosis has been a gift. Every step that I have been able to run is a victory over my breast cancer; it has been my therapy in every sense of the word. Every step is a continuation of my breast cancer journey.
I make time for running because it is important to me. I have also since becoming a marathoner become a triathlete and finished my first triathlon in July of this year at Ironman Calgary. When I ran through the finish line area they announced “and here comes breast cancer survivor Jennifer McCrea.” I cried my face off.
Me: Any special lifestyle changes incorporated since the breast cancer diagnosis.
Jenn: Knowing my family history of cancer and knowing that I was a carrier of the BRCA cancer gene mutation I always maintained a healthy lifestyle, I took my vitamin D, I ate my fruits and veggies, I stayed active, I kept my BMI where it was supposed to me, I rarely consumed alcohol, etc.etc. Since my breast cancer diagnosis I eat a little better, and I have removed a lot of household cleaners from my home.
Me: What advice/ suggestion would you like to share with readers who are currently battling breast cancer?
Jenn: As on the sign my great friend Heather held up for me at the end of my marathon: Never give up. Also for anyone that has a family history and or is a carrier of the BRCA cancer gene mutation, I strongly recommend that they have the genetic testing, have the screenings, and seriously look at having the preventative surgeries.
Don’t think that if you are a carrier of the gene mutation that cancer will not come for you, because it is coming for you. Even if you don’t test positive to have the BRCA cancer gene mutation, you need to make your doctors aware of the family history and if any symptoms arise that you for yourselves and get the screening that is needed.
Be an advocate for your life and for your health.
Thank you Jenn, you truly are an inspiration!