When you are juggling three sons three and under and you lead an active, healthy and fit life, the last words you expect to hear are “You have cancer.” But that’s the phone call Jennifer Cavanaugh, 35, received in June 2018 while traveling with her family — and her whole world shifted. Three months ago, as she was putting her eight-month-old baby in his crib for a nap, she found a lump. Two doctors told her it was likely a cyst, but she pushed for further testing. Ultimately, a biopsy showed she had an aggressive form of breast cancer, called HER2/hormone negative, a protein in her cells that allows the cancer to live and spread.
“I was in the best shape of my life! Thinking about my kids and family has been the toughest part. You just don’t imagine a future without you in it,” says Jen. “The first diagnosis was the darkest place I’ve ever been. Those first few weeks of living in an unknown, waiting to understand just how expansive and detrimental your cancer is, is a fear I hope I never have to face again. The first session of chemo was very empowering to me because I view the treatments a means to the end of my cancer. It was the first step I could take in getting my life back. I’m 35 and a mom to three wonderful boys who need me.”
Ten years ago, if someone was diagnosed with HER2, doctors would discuss how to manage the diagnosis or how to keep the patient comfortable. Now, it’s quite different. Thanks to cutting edge research that the Damon Runyon Cancer Research Foundation has funded, scientists have discovered new treatments for patients like Jen.
“As a cancer patient myself, the research we’re funding gives me hope,” she says. “Thanks to cutting edge research, I have the best treatment plans, the best medicine and the best doctors available.”
“The good news is my original tumor was small, the bad news was it spread to a few of my lymph nodes” she adds. “I am undergoing 12 rounds of chemo, with the hope that it shrinks the cancer and/ or eliminates it all together. I’m on number nine now and you already cannot feel a mass in my chest and the nodes under my arm are no longer felt to the touch.”
Jen’s doctors hope to shrink the cancer so much that during the required surgery, there is not much to remove, therefore decreasing the likelihood of its reoccurrence. Since the cancer has also spread to her lymph nodes, she will most likely have an auxiliary abstraction to remove the lymph nodes under her right arm. She is also concurrently receiving 17 rounds of the antibody that targets HER2 over the course of a year or so.
She continues to fight her way through the treatments, stay strong physically and mentally — and even running six miles before every weekly treatment. She says running has always been her mental therapy — and now she needs it more than ever. “The ability to beat my cancer is, to me, as much a mental battle as it is a physical one,” she explains.
“I fight my way through it so that I can have precious moments with my family,” says Jen. “I raise money for cancer research with the hope that someday the unknowns will be answered. They give me faith that someday there will be a light at the end of my tunnel.”