Jen Cavanaugh’s Journey: Fighting for a Cancer-Free Future

For the Raveis family, like many families touched by cancer, the quest for a cure is painfully personal. Meghan and Ryan Raveis’ sister-in-law, Jennifer Cavanaugh, a 36-year-old mother of three young boys, has been fighting breast cancer for the last 16 months. At this year’s Raveis Ride + Walk on September 29 at Calf Pasture Beach in Norwalk, Conn., she will share her story of her diagnosis and treatment for an aggressive form of breast cancer, HER2+ / ER and PR-, a protein in her cells that allows the cancer to live and spread.

Ten years ago, if someone had been diagnosed with HER2, doctors would discuss how to manage the diagnosis or how to keep the patient comfortable. Now, it’s different: Thanks to cutting edge research that the Damon Runyon Cancer Research Foundation has funded, scientists have discovered new treatments for patients like Jennifer.

“As a cancer patient myself, the research we’re funding gives me hope,” she said. “Thanks to cutting edge research, I have the best treatment plans, the best medicine and the best doctors available. Most importantly, at the end of it all, a second chance at living a long, healthy life.”

Sixteen months ago, Jennifer’s oncologists hoped to shrink her cancer so that there wouldn’t be much to remove during surgery, therefore decreasing the likelihood of its reoccurrence.  After enduring 16 rounds of chemotherapy, 16 cold caps, surgery, an anaphylactic reaction, three biopsies, 17 rounds of antibody infusions, 30 rounds of radiation and countless IVs, MRIs, CAT scans, mammograms and hospitalizations, she can valiantly call herself a cancer survivor.

Here is her first-hand account of her new reality:

I’ve been slowly working on putting the pieces of myself and my life back together.  I can’t say it’s been easy. I have good days and I have bad days. It’s a work in progress, but I am grateful to be given this chance to embark on this new and (hopefully) improved next chapter of my life.

I once read: “Faith is the strength by which a shattered world shall emerge into the light,” and for the first time in a long time I can actually see the light; sometimes it’s a dull light and sometimes it’s a bright light, but I am learning to live in the moments that are my life now.

I’m empowered by being able to look to the future and new adventures planned. I enjoy having things to look forward to; it’s fuel for my soul.  I love that more normal day-to-day conversations have re-entered our world. Life doesn’t seem to be at a standstill anymore. It seems to be moving at a more normal speed.

I’ve learned many things over this past year, but one thing that has stood out to me is how to be adaptable. Life was certainly not what I thought it would be this year, yet I adapted to it. I am still adapting to it. Finding ways that keep me moving, that keep me fighting to come out on the other side. I realized I had and still have two choices: Dwell and feel sad and sorry for myself or recognize I can’t control everything and that this is my life. I can’t trade it in. I can’t change it, so I might as well live it for all it’s worth.

None of us knows what tomorrow will bring. Over this past year I’ve often wished for a crystal ball — something that could guarantee me that cancer will forever be in my rear view. I’m never going to get this though and I’m not sure I’d actually really want it. I’ve become a little more comfortable living with the unknown. It’s helped me realize we all have choices that we make daily about how we spend our hours, days, months, years — the time that creates our memories that build a life.  Where do you focus? How do you balance? We all have to figure out the answers to questions like these. This last year has taught me to try my hardest to find happiness right where I am. I try not to look out but rather look in, feel grateful for what I have, not sad about what I don’t. It goes without saying some days this is easier to do than others.

Kenny Chesney is one of my favorite artists, and his song “Everything’s Gonna Be Alright” blared loudly as a theme song in our house over this last year. One day last month another song of his came on, “I’m Alive,” and I loved the lyrics: “Breathing in and out is a blessing can’t you see. Today’s the first day of the rest of my life and I’m alive and well.”

It struck me because today I’m alive. Today I am well. Today I am cancer free. There’s a mix of emotions that come with that. Relief that I can begin to move away from this year. Happy that the poison needed to cure me can finally stop flowing through my body. Hopeful that the side effects will begin to subside and my body will repair itself and heal from the toxicities it needed to endure. But I also feel scared, vulnerable. My safety net is being pulled out from underneath me. I need to rebuild trust that my body will once again work the way it is supposed to and that the cancer will stay away. That I will in fact have a long life to live.

As my doctor said, “It’s easy to say go back to your normal life now, but getting there will take time.  Your mind and body have a lot to recover from.” And while he’s absolutely right, I’m grateful to just be given the time to get back there. However, on my journey to getting back there, I need to somehow assign meaning to this year. I want this year to matter. I want to pay it forward. I want to help others.

I want to try my hardest to make cancer a thing of the past. I want it to matter, but to not completely define me. It’s undeniably a part of me now, but I want to find a way to make it a powerful and strong part of me that doesn’t just symbolize the bad and the ugly. So if you have any ideas on how to do this, I’m always open to suggestions, as I keep trying to find ways myself!

There are a few things I’m doing to start my healing upon finishing treatment. I will participate in the fifth annual Raveis Ride and Walk. Importantly, this year I’ll be attending as a cancer survivor because of research done before me. Research that was funded by missions like this. This year, not only will I be walking but I’ll be speaking, hoping to help others feel inspired to pay it forward and to help me start my journey towards healing and health, post-treatment.

I was asked the other day in a workout class, “What are you fighting for?” I’m fighting for a world where somehow, someday, in some way, cancer will be a thing of the past. Here’s to looking to the future and making sure that light in the distance forever remains as bright as possible.

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