“All I could thing about was my kids.”
“I couldn’t even speak, I sobbed....cried and cried.”
Jennifer Jerger was a nurse working in obstetrics/gynecology, but nothing in her career had prepared her for the news the radiologist had just delivered.
“I was thinking I have four little girls to take care of, this can’t be happening.”
Jerger was the keynote speaker at last week’s Pink Tie event at Daviess Community Hospital where she works on the OB floor. When she went to Heartland OB/GYN for her annual exam on Wednesday, Sept. 28, 2016, she had no idea that she’d be the one delivering the message at a breast cancer awareness event just one year later.
She knew before going to her routine appointment, Dr. Jonathan Frances would most likely talk to her about getting a mammogram. She was 39 years old and about to turn 40.
Dr. Frances told her after her breast exam in the office that he’d felt a lump on her left side, and he asked her if she’d ever felt it.
“I shook my head no, and my heart fell to my feet,” Jerger recalled.
A mammogram was scheduled for Friday, just two days later. But the next day when she was working her shift on the second floor at DCH, mammography called to say they had had a cancellation at 9 a.m. She talked to her supervisor for approval, who assuredly her that other nurses would cover her patients, and that she should take the appointment.
Since the initial lump had been found, standard procedure then called for an immediate ultrasound.
“The radiologist came in to talk to me,” said Jerger, adding, “I don’t remember anything of what he said, except before he left he said, ‘Listen, hear this, it’s small, it’s early and it’s curable.’”
Deciding to leave work early to gather her thoughts, she said it had to be God’s divine intervention that she had parked her van in the lot behind DCH, so she decided to sneak down the back stairway. It was there on the second floor landing where she met up with Barbara Lengacher, a volunteer at DCH and member of Jerger’s church family.
“I asked her what she was doing in the stairwell and she said she never takes the stairs, but just decided to that day for a change. I knew she was a breast cancer survivor and that God had put her in my path that day for a reason.”
The young mother of four was sent for a biopsy the following Wednesday, Oct. 5, and just two days later Dr. France called with the news that the mass was indeed breast cancer, or what is known medically as “infiltrating ductal carcinoma.” Her left milk duct and the surrounding tissue were effected.
Her husband, Jeremy, who works at Crane and is a part-time farmer, was harvesting that day. “I just called him and said, ‘You need to come home.’”
After crying, praying and talking to the doctors, the Jergers made the decision together to have a bilateral mastectomy (removal of both breasts) with breast reconstruction.
That type of surgery wasn’t available at DCH, so she decided to go to St. Vincent - Evansville Breast Center.
Heartland OB called about an hour later and already had appointments set up for the following week.
“Then we knew we had to tell our families. That Saturday morning we had ladies’ Bible study at church, and then I came home and we told the kids. That part still makes me cry.
“That was the single most difficult part for me...the whole surgery, chemo, radiation...telling my kids was the worst part. We told the older girls first. It was horrible,” Jerger recalled.
Their daughters Lindsay, 14; Audrey, 12; Kelsey, 8 and Shaylee, 6, had been part of the Daviess County Relay for Life team with the mother, along with other DCH OB nurses, so they already had an awareness of cancer.
“They were amazing,” Jerger said of her girls. “The two oldest would type out scripture verses and leave them on the refrigerator, and they stepped up at home to help. The two older ones helped take care of the little ones.
“I was worried about how I was going to take care of them, and during this whole trial in my life, they took care of me.”
With the girls active in volleyball, basketball, softball and 4-H, life got hectic with the numerous trips to Evansville, “but we tried to keep things as normal as possible,” she said.
Jerger had her first surgery on Nov. 4, and started chemotherapy just a few days after Christmas. Every three weeks she made more trips for the necessary chemo drugs for four treatments.
“They said my hair would fall out in two weeks, and like clockwork, it did. That was very hard. Kelsey had some friends over, and I had a headband on, but it was getting thin toward the top. I knew that day, Jan. 14th, I knew it was time (to shave my head).”
After having her head shaved at a salon, Jerger wore a wig that looked so much like her regular hair that most of her friends didn’t realize she had lost her hair.
“It was amazing how much it looked like my hair.”
Her oncologist thought it would be better if Jerger got back to her nursing job, even while taking chemotherapy, as much as her health would allow.
“It’s good for your mental health to do whatever you feel like you can do,” she advised.
So after being on the couch or in bed the first week after chemo, Jerger went back to work to help deliver babies and care for infants in the hospital nursery. But her joints hurt and she had no energy. Chemo didn’t make her stomach upset, but food didn’t taste good.
Although cancer tests on her lymph nodes came back negative, tests on her original tumor were within the “positive margin,” that radiation on her left side was necessary. Twenty-eight cycles of radiation began on May 1, five days a week.
Jerger was able to make it all the way to treatment 18 before having to sit out a few days, due to excessive burning.
Following more reconstructive surgery, she’s been taking monthly shots of Zoladex, which shuts down her ovaries from producing estrogen.
“They wanted me to produce as little estrogen as possible.”
On Monday, Jerger will have still more reconstructive surgery and doctors will remove her ovaries.
Cancer has taken a lot from Jerger and her family, but she’s confident in her faith this trial has been for a reason.
“The Lord has put me on this path to show people that even when trials like cancer come your way, if you have faith, He will take care of you,” Jerger, who said she’s especially grateful for her family, friends, church and co-workers who’ve helped over the last year. She urges other women, especially those who avoid having annual exams, to call for an appointment.
Cancer was the last thing on her mind when she walked into Heartland last fall. “I had no family history, and no risk factors,” she emphasized.
Her only symptom was fatigue, and what busy mom isn’t tired? “But it was a different kind of tired, and I didn’t catch it,” she remembered.
“Listen to your body, and get your yearly screenings.”
By the numbers
In 2017, an estimated 252,710 new cases of invasive breast cancer are expected to be diagnosed in women in the U.S., along with 63,410 new cases of non-invasive (in situ) breast cancer.About 2,470 new cases of invasive breast cancer are expected to be diagnosed in men in 2017. A man’s lifetime risk of breast cancer is about 1 in 1,000.Breast cancer incidence rates in the U.S. began decreasing in the year 2000, after increasing for the previous two decades. They dropped by 7% from 2002 to 2003 alone. One theory is that this decrease was partially due to the reduced use of hormone replacement therapy (HRT) by women after the results of a large study called the Women’s Health Initiative were published in 2002. These results suggested a connection between HRT and increased breast cancer risk.About 40,610 women in the U.S. are expected to die in 2017 from breast cancer, though death rates have been decreasing since 1989. Women under 50 have experienced larger decreases. These decreases are thought to be the result of treatment advances, earlier detection through screening, and increased awareness.For women in the U.S., breast cancer death rates are higher than those for any other cancer, besides lung cancer.