Jennifer Gardenhour

Jennifer Gardenhour

Each year, Johnstown Magazine highlights some of the brave individuals who faced a breast cancer diagnosis and plowed their way through.

Jennifer Gardenhour of Davidsville is an example of how complicated the journey can be once a diagnosis of breast cancer has been made.

“I underwent four surgeries in five months,” the 46-year-old mother of three says.

These days she is in a “good place” and wants to share her journey in hopes it may help others going through a similar ordeal.

Her experience began like so many others.

“In June of 2018, I had my routine checkup,” she recalls. “They called me the next day to tell me there was something suspicious.”

From there, she had an ultrasound and a biopsy on the same day.

The results came back as ductal carcinoma in situ, Stage 0, however, another area of suspicion demanded more testing. Soon it was learned there were three areas of concern in her right breast.

A cancer diagnosis was not new for Jennifer. Ten years earlier she had a local wide excision surgery to remove a malignant mole from her back. Because the tumor was ulcerating and was of a certain size, it was recommended that she complete a year of interferon treatments.

Her treatment plan consisted of four weeks through IV injections, followed by 48 weeks of subcutaneous injections which she gave herself three days a week at home.

“I felt like I had the flu for an entire year,” she says. “Muscle aches, fever, nausea and fatigue are common side effects of interferon.”

She pushed through and continued teaching her first graders in the Greater Johnstown School District.

This time, Jennifer’s medical team in Pittsburgh recommended an aggressive approach to deal with the cancer.

“The initial plan was for a lumpectomy followed by radiation. However, after multiple ultrasounds, MRIs, and biopsies, I learned that I had multi-focal breast cancer in my right breast. In addition to the ductal carcinoma in situ, I was also diagnosed with lobular carcinoma in situ and invasive ductal carcinoma. Therefore, a lumpectomy was no longer an option. My medical team decided a mastectomy was the best route for me,” she says.

It was not an easy decision, but after discussing it with her husband, Chris, Jennifer decided to have both breasts removed with immediate reconstruction.

Two weeks after the surgery, Jennifer was back at the hospital with MRSA in both breasts.

“I was given a strong antibiotic to help control the infection. They opened me back up, removed the implants, flushed me and inserted new implants. I then was prescribed an oral antibiotic for the next 8 to 10 weeks.”

Unfortunately, her problems continued.

“I had two major surgeries only two weeks apart,” she says. “I had difficulties moving my arms and developed frozen shoulder which required six week of physical therapy.”

Then there were problems with skin tearing on her left breast and Jennifer had to have a muscle flap surgery in January 2019.

The fourth surgery happened in February after she once again developed MRSA – this time isolated on the left side.

“Had I known all of the complications that I was going to face, I do not think I would have had reconstruction,” she says.

Only after she healed from all the surgeries did Jennifer’s medical team begin follow-up treatments for the breast cancer.

One lymph node had come back positive, but the Oncotype DX Test results were low, therefore her team of doctors decided not to do chemotherapy and scheduled radiation to be followed by several years of Tamoxifen, a chemo drug. Although she has some side effects from the medication, Jennifer says she feels good and ready to share her experience with others.

“You never know what someone is going through so you should be kind and compassionate to others.

“You have to tell your story. It helps to know that you are not alone.”

She credits a tremendous support system for getting her through the journey.

“My family, friends, neighbors, coworkers and community helped me out tremendously. Our family stepped right in to help Chris with the kids. Everyone pitched in to help take our children to their activities, drive me to my never-ending appointments, help out around the house, whatever we needed, someone was there.

“My neighbors even created a plan to help with food. Three days a week, for nearly two months, somebody was delivering a hot meal. I always appreciated that even though Chris does most of the cooking.

“For me, what I cherish the most, is all of the prayers that I received and continue to receive,” she says.

Her husband and three children are her biggest supporters and Jennifer knows that her difficult journey was theirs as well.

“My youngest was in pre-school,” she recalls. “One night during our usual nightly routine, he said, ‘I miss my old mom. The one that doesn’t get sick and leave me all the time.’”

Jen says those words were extremely difficult to digest.

“I know that my children are stronger, more compassionate and understand that life is not fair because of my diagnosis. They have also learned how to cope with adversities. Those are tremendous lessons to be learned by such young human beings.”

Jennifer says life is a blessing and she knows that she does not fight the battle alone.

“I am approaching three years since my bilateral mastectomy,” she says. “I have learned not to live my life in fear, rather I live my life cautiously.”

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