MARYSVILLE — According to the National Cancer Institute, one in eight women born today will be diagnosed with breast cancer in her lifetime. October is Breast Cancer Awareness month — a time when women are encouraged to take charge of their health and complete self breast exams for early detection. Marysville’s Jen Uhler knows from personal experience why early detection is so important.
In 2011, Uhler was raising three kids, working at Providence Regional Medical Center’s Comprehensive Breast Center, and taking night classes at Everett Community College for her nursing prerequisites. In her career she interacted with breast cancer patients, survivors and women who were coming in for their first mammogram.
“I was a single mom of three teenagers, and I actually work at the Comprehensive Breast Center in Everett, so I know all about the care involved,” said Uhler. “I was really busy but not really stressed. I worked full time, I had three kids in school and I was going to night school four nights a week.”
On June 21, 2011, at the age of 40, Uhler did a self examination and discovered something that would change her life forever.
“I hadn’t even had my mammogram yet,” she said. “I had just turned 40 and just did a self exam and I found something. It felt like the size of a small pea and it was pretty hard. I actually felt, at that instant, that I had cancer. I just knew it. It was a Friday night when I found my lump and I didn’t say anything to anybody.”
The following Monday, Uhler took time off from work to see her doctor, who didn’t believe that it was cancer — at first.
“My doctor kind of dismissed it,” said Uhler. “He said I was too young, just 40 years old. He said it was really unlikely.”
Uhler decided to go into her work and ask for a second opinion.
“I ran over to work and had somebody feel it, and the very next day I had a mammogram,” she said. “I just kind of knew. I’ve talked to other people who say they knew too. I felt like I kept telling people there was something wrong with me.”
That Tuesday, Uhler went in for her mammogram and faced looks of concern from friends and coworkers who, just days before, had been laughing and joking as the weekend approached.
“It was difficult for the people working there — my colleagues and friends that work with me. I told one of my coworkers that I found a lump and she was very professional about it, but I could tell in her eyes that she was worried. They typically don’t schedule a biopsy on the same day as a mammogram, but on Tuesday I had a biopsy and the very next day I knew I had cancer.”
For Uhler, finding out through her work that she had cancer was a difficult process.
“I was so worried about it, but then the nurse practitioner asked me into her office. I thought for one second that I was wrong and I didn’t have cancer. But she told me the biopsy was positive.”
The shock of her diagnosis hit her especially hard, having seen on a daily basis the toll that breast cancer can take on a person’s life. She immediately called her family.
“I just excused myself and called my sister and brother,” she said. “My sister Heather is three years younger than me and my brother Jason is three years older than me. We are very, very close. My sister lives in Seattle and my brother lives in Everett. I swear she must have gotten from Seattle to Everett in 15 minutes.”
She was worried about telling her three children the news.
“When they told me I had cancer, I started crying and the first thing I thought of was my kids,” she said.
Her daughter Megan, now 16, could sense that something was wrong.
“I wanted to tell them all three together,” she said. “My daughter knew something was going on. She kept texting me, ‘What did they say?’ and ‘What’s wrong? What’s going on?’ I told them all three together the next day.”
Her sons, Cody, now 19, and Braydon, now 17, were stunned into silence by the news that their mother had been diagnosed with breast cancer at just 40 years old.
“The boys just sat there,” said Uhler. “Braydon walked into his bedroom and my older son didn’t say anything at all. My daughter cried a little bit. We were all just shocked. I was actually in shock for a couple of weeks. But I had a huge support system throughout Marysville, and my coworkers were so supportive. I have so many wonderful friends and family.”
After work the following day, Uhler went to church where there was a women’s speaker that night.
“I had already planned on going, and after my diagnosis my friend said, ‘We should go to church.’ The speaker that night was an 8-year breast cancer survivor,” she said. “We had no idea that she would be speaking that night. She was diagnosed at age 32, so when she was speaking, she was the same age that I was.”
Hearing from a young breast cancer survivor only days after being diagnosed gave Uhler strength to face the trials that lay ahead.
“I met with my doctor and he gave me the option of a lumpectomy or a mastectomy,” she said. “I had a unilateral mastectomy. I met with a surgeon, and a plastic surgeon as well, trying to figure out what to do. I had a mastectomy of my right breast on Aug. 12, 2011.”
The surgery wasn’t the only treatment that Uhler went through to eliminate the cancer.
“Because of my age, being so young, we went ahead and did chemotherapy,” she said. “I started chemotherapy in September of 2011. And I didn’t even do my first reconstruction until January of 2012, after I had completed the chemotherapy.”
The months-long process of chemotherapy put an enormous strain on Uhler, who as a single mom was struggling with how to financially support her family while her body was fighting a deadly disease.
“I felt like a chemotherapy failure,” she said. “I didn’t do very well. I was so sick. I didn’t hardly work at all, and it was hard because when I had gone through my mastectomy I used all eight weeks of sick pay for my surgery, so I was planning on going back to work. I thought I could have chemotherapy on a Thursday and recover over the weekend, but it didn’t work out that way. I barely worked at all.”
Nausea, pain, loss of appetite and loss of weight were a daily struggles for Uhler, who was also stressed about her finances.
“It was hard because I was stressed about how I was going to make my house payment and feed my kids,” she said. “My sister told me not to worry. Everyday somebody was bringing over meals for me and my kids, from the time of my mastectomy to the end of chemotherapy. Lots of people in the Breast Center donated their paid time off for me to use and that’s how I got through it. It was really tough, but with my coworkers and my friends hosting fundraisers and bake sales, I had a lot of people helping me out financially.”
Losing a breast and your hair is more than just losing parts of your body — it’s like losing your femininity — especially for young women.
“It totally changed my self confidence,” said Uhler. “It was the hardest thing. Losing my hair was harder than the mastectomy. When you are young you don’t want to lose your hair. After we shaved my head, I felt relieved. But it was hard going out in public because I knew that everybody was going to notice me.
That winter, one of Uhler’s friend’s gave her a gift that helped her to make it through the hard times.
“A really good friend of mine bought us a puppy during chemotherapy,” she said. “He is a King Charles Cavalier Spaniel named Bentley. Bentley gave me something to do when the kids were at school. He is just like one of my children. He was a great addition to the family — he helped us out and made us laugh. He always knew when I wasn’t well and he would comfort me. I was never a dog person either, but he just has been the best thing.”
Although Bentley kept her comforted, Uhler remembers one moment when she didn’t think that she could carry on.
“Toward the end of my chemotherapy treatment I told my sister, ‘I don’t want to do this anymore.’ I had four treatments every three weeks and I said, ‘I am not doing my last one.’ You just start feeling better, and then you have to do another treatment. But she said, ‘Yes you are. You’ve gone this far, you are going to make it through.’”
After her chemotherapy treatment was over, Uhler continued her breast reconstruction, which included four individual surgeries, a tissue expander and a breast implant.
“I didn’t think that anybody would find me remotely attractive,” she said, about dating in the future. “I don’t know how to tell people that I don’t have a breast. Prior to cancer, I was a size A breast, and I went from an A to a C, so I always tell people to take advantage of the situation,” she laughed. “I was fine with my boobs, at least I got mine for free. Of course, I had to go through cancer to get them, so it’s a joke now.”
Uhler is now cancer free and uses her experience to help other women.
“Now I feel like I can help a lot of people, because of my journey,” she said. “If I know they are young, I’ll walk up to them and tell them I’m sorry about their diagnosis and that I was diagnosed two summers ago. You can see the relief.”
Uhler began a support group with another young cancer survivor for women under 45 years old. They meet on the second and fourth Tuesday of every month at the Cancer Partnership in Everett at 5:30 p.m. Uhler has plans to start her classes once again this winter quarter and is cherishing her time with her children, whom she said really stepped up to the plate during her treatment.
“The main thing that I want people to get is that life continues after breast cancer,” she said. “There is a reason I have breast cancer. I have helped so many people, and even if you have a tragedy in your life, you can turn it around and help people. I truly believe that breast cancer changed my life for the better, if you can believe that.”
For more breast cancer stories see the Oct. 12 edition of The Arlington Times and The Marysville Globe for the Pink Crusade section.