No woman ever expects a breast cancer diagnosis, let alone a woman in her 30s.
But it happens, and Kelly Jackson is a perfect example.
Jackson, now 35, was diagnosed with stage 2b triple negative breast cancer when she turned 33.
“You kind of go on autopilot,” Jackson, a longtime Ipswich resident, said of her reaction. “The next step is, what do I do, what do I need to do to get rid of this.”
A rarer form of breast cancer, triple negative means the cancer is not likely to respond to hormonal therapy or to treatments that target HER2 receptors, a gene that produces a protein known to cause cancer cells.
“It’s harder to treat, which is why they don’t know much about it,” Jackson said.
Breast cancer is diagnosed in stages based on the size of the tumor and whether the cancer has spread, as defined by the American Joint Committee on Cancer. Stage 2b means the tumor is either between 2 and 5 centimeters and has spread to nearby lymph nodes, or the tumor is larger than 5 centimeters but has not spread.
Jackson was showering when she felt the lump in her breast.
“I just knew right away that something was wrong,” she said.
She made an appointment to have it checked out. Doctors, noting her young age, said it was probably nothing.
Not long afterward, however, she was meeting with a team of oncologists, surgeons, and support staff at Lahey Clinic to go over treatment options. They suggested a lumpectomy and radiation. Jackson chose to undergo a double mastectomy and breast reconstruction.
“My thoughts were, I’m 33 years old, I don’t want to have to worry the rest of my life about this,” she said.
Jackson also underwent two rounds of chemotherapy, lasting about six months, as well as drug treatments. Like many others, she lost her hair. But she was never alone.
“I had a great group of people helping me along the way,” she said. “From aunts to cousins to siblings, every single chemo treatment I had, someone was there, even if it was just to watch me sleep. I was never, ever allowed to be alone.”
For Jackson, the hardest part was explaining to her daughter, then 9, and stepdaughter, then 14, what was happening. But she stressed how supportive her family had been throughout the ordeal.
“My husband would tell me every day how beautiful I was, even though I didn’t feel it, being bald and overweight from the chemo,” she said. “They were truly amazing, and I am truly blessed to have them all.”
In all, her treatment lasted about a year, including rounds of chemotherapy and surgeries. At Lahey, the initial surgery lasted about eight hours, because the breast surgeon and plastic surgeon worked in tandem. Once the mastectomy was complete, Jackson’s plastic surgeon jumped in, putting tissue expanders in place and starting the reconstruction process almost immediately. Little by little, the expanders made room for implants.
From her initial diagnosis on, Jackson did what she could to educate herself about her cancer and how to best treat it.
“I wanted to know everything I could about it. I asked a lot of questions,” she said. “You kind of become your own advocate and you learn a lot.”
What Jackson also learned through her treatment was that there are few, if any, resources for younger women battling breast cancer.
“At chemo I was always the youngest patient there,” she said, adding that, if she were to help breast cancer patients or survivors in any way, it would be through a program designed to support younger patients.
Today Jackson is cancer-free, although she still goes to Lahey for occasional check-ups and stays in touch with the healthcare professionals who handled her treatment.
“I have older friends who are supposed to start (going for mammograms), and I insist that they go because you never know,” she said. “I didn’t expect it when I started my 30s, either.”
To our readers:
Today The Salem News kicks off a campaign in honor of Breast Cancer Awareness Month. Please look for stories throughout October, as well as a special section inserted into the newspaper on Oct. 16. This campaign is supported by very generous business leaders and corporate partners, whose messages will appear throughout the month. A sincere thank you for their support of this community campaign.
Join our breast cancer awareness campaign
It's not too late to be part of the Salem News' Breast Cancer Awareness Campaign. We are looking for North Shore residents who have battled or are battling breast cancer, who have been otherwise touched by this disease, and who would like to share their stories. Your stories will be used in our special news coverage this month, both in print and online at salemnews.com. If you are interested in sharing your story, or would like more information, contact Cheryl Lecesse at email@example.com or 978-338-2664.