Voices of Impact – Jessica M. Winkler
Jessica M. Winkler, Suffolk County, NY – Survivor
“I refer to cancer as an unwanted gift. Cancer changed who I am and altered my perception of life but all for the better!”
“This program, funded by Susan G. Komen Greater New York City, has helped many women like myself in Suffolk County, Long Island navigate through cancer surgeries and treatments with ease, through essential and in-demand services.”
Happy Birthday Jessica darling, you have cancer! I had planned to spend my 28th birthday celebrating with friends and family – instead, I was in the breast surgeon’s office receiving the diagnosis that would change every aspect of who I am, and which would alter my perception of life forever. The diagnosis? Invasive ductal carcinoma Stage 2B. And that wasn’t all. I also tested positively for the BRCA1 gene mutation, and my breast cancer was triple negative.
Saying I was in shock would be an understatement. I was nearing the end of my junior year of nursing school at Stony Brook University, doing exceptionally well. I was in the top five percent of my class, and I was exhausted. I had to really make an effort to follow through with my annual gynecological exam. During this exam the practitioner failed to do a thorough clinical breast assessment, which led me to conduct my own the following day. I was startled at the discovery of a pea-sized mass located on my right breast. What I didn’t know at the time was that I had just found my cancer. I made a follow-up appointment in which I was referred for further screening. Unaware of my family’s cancer history, I re-immersed myself in the nursing program and chose to put these follow-up breast screenings on hold. I waited until the semester was over. And then waited an additional month as I had begun working in a nursing internship program. Ironically, I was placed on a Surgical Oncology floor!
So why did I postpone these exams? Well, everything in my life was coming together. I had just moved into a new apartment. I had an incredible learning opportunity in front of me. I was ready for my final year of nursing school and I was 27 years old. I just didn’t have the time. Four months after the discovery of the mass, on my 28th birthday, I was informed that I had an aggressive form of breast cancer. This shattered me. I was propelled into a world where I had no clue what to expect. My life could potentially be taken from me, at the age of 28 and single? To make matters worse, I didn’t have health insurance that would cover my treatments.
I knew in my heart I was going to be just fine. I prayed. The following month I moved mountains and came across several “gems” who would help me during the most trying year of my life.
It’s amazing how extraordinary people and situations surface to come assist, guide and carry you through to the next phase of the process, whether they are aware of it or not. Arlene Allen, RN, Nursing Navigator at the Peconic Bay Medical Center, Riverhead, New York, was one of these special people. Arlene is employed in a program that provides concrete resources to those who are diagnosed with breast and ovarian cancer. This program, funded by Susan G. Komen Greater New York City, has helped many women like myself in Suffolk County, Long Island navigate through cancer surgeries and treatments with ease, through essential and in-demand services. I refer to Arlene as my guardian angel. She found medical insurance in a matter of days, which covered the entirety of my cancer treatments. At present I have a zero balance in cancer-related medical bills. Arlene was a central resource for rental assistance, education, and linking me to other young adults who shared similar diagnoses. Without these services I would not have been able to receive the cancer treatments I needed to survive.
My treatments consisted of an immediate bilateral mastectomy, followed by egg preservation, chemotherapy, radiation and total breast reconstruction all at the ripe old age of 28! In a few years I will also have my ovaries removed due to the increased risk of ovarian cancer from carrying the BRCA gene. I’d like to make an important point that while conventional medicine eradicated my cancer, my holistic approach to recovery did and continues to heal and nourish me.
Chemotherapy makes an already challenging life significantly more difficult. I lived with physically debilitating symptoms, cognitive delays, severe depression, anxiety and insecurity. During this time, I learned to look at myself without judgment, without the influence of school, family, and the all-consuming cancer-constructed world I was in. I learned to take care of myself for the first time in my life.
I have come to a place of peace and acceptance with my diagnosis. Taking a few moments once a month to do a breast self-exam and a few hours every few months to follow through with preventive exams is truly insignificant in comparison to what can potentially come from not being proactive. I have learned there is no face to cancer.
I refer to cancer as an unwanted gift. Cancer changed who I am and altered my perception of life but all for the better! Cancer brought awareness to areas of myself and my life that I would not have seen or explored otherwise. I am the healthiest now that I have ever been and I am proud to share that I am in full remission! I am also happy to add that I am fully matriculated in the Stony Brook University nursing program and my expected graduation is May 2014! My greatest life’s work lies with those who are in need of help and healing, therefore I plan to pursue an advanced degree as an Adult Health and Holistic Nurse Practitioner. I am also developing a website for newly diagnosed and present breast cancer survivors. Through education, resources and coping tools, I hope to help soften the emotional and physical effects of cancer. While cancer is an unwanted gift I was sent, Arlene and the staff at the Peconic Bay Medical Center were the treasures I received. Thank you Susan G. Komen and the Peconic Bay Medical Center!
About the author
Nancy G. Brinker promised her dying sister, Susan G. Komen, she would do everything in her power to end breast cancer forever. In 1982, that promise became Susan G. Komen and launched the global breast cancer movement. Today, Komen is the world’s largest grassroots network of breast cancer survivors and activists fighting to save lives, empower people, ensure quality care for all and energize science to find the cures. Thanks to events like the Komen Race for the Cure®, we have invested more than $1.9 billion to fulfill our promise, becoming the largest source of nonprofit funds dedicated to the fight against breast cancer in the world.