Our first "Women of Breast Influence" is Jennifer Pellechio-Lukowiak. I had the pleasure of meeting Jenn last year in New York City and loved her instantly. Jenn is the author of ‘Does This Outfit Make Me Look Bald?’ and writes regular blogs on her website and social media. You will love Jenn who was the original Tamoxibabe and is now a rocking Arimidiva.
I asked the amazing Arimidiva, Jennifer, what her shade of pink was and she replied: "Oh and I love that you asked me my favorite pink color...I'm a color nerd and I love Pantone's Knockout Pink. It's a hot pink and it is bright and bold!" Just the type of response I expected from an Arimidiva and Fashionista.
This is Jennifer's story
Ten years ago I was a 38-year-old fashionista by day working in the design offices of an internationally known apparel company and by night running my own tabletop ceramic business. I loved my husband and my two boys, then aged 9 & 11 to the moon and back … not to mention my darling fur baby Sierra. I was the boss of my own little world. Was I over-worked, over-committed, and over-scheduled? Yes, but I was also happy. This was life I dreamed of having. In college I was enchanted by the show Thirtysomething. Adulting, being married, having kids and friends and commitments all of it, I followed the handbook; I was thirtysomething. I mean, my cups were full – then I found a lump.
It revealed itself to me when I was glancing down at my once fabulous boobage. Poking out, I assumed it was a cyst. I ignored it for a few weeks until my nipple began doing the downward dog position. Then, on some level, I knew ... because that was one of THE signs listed on a random poster at my doctor’s office. I noted in my Day Timer to call my local imaging center where I had had a clean mammo just 18 months prior, but then ... the hubs felt it. He told me in no uncertain terms that if I didn't get myself to the imaging center that very week he would take me himself with or without an appointment. From there it was a whirlwind of denial, tears, acceptance, denial, anger, terror, denial and eventually, acquiescence.
I was a very impatient patient and I wanted this to just be a speed bump on the highway of my life but a very aggressive breast cancer diagnosis, stage IIA HER2+ ER-/PR- had other plans for me. I planned to get through the invasive and painful tests, the three lumpectomies it took to get clean margins and finally, dose dense chemo followed by radiation and get back to my life.
Ha! If only.
Can I be blunt? Chemo sucked. It sucked hard and I hated it. I'd look at my bald head and big bloated face and think, "Shit lady, you're in deep. This is cancer. This is your life now." See, my doctor didn't give me the skinny bitch chemo I’d requested, he doesn't subscribe to that, he likes steroids, says they'll keep my appetite up and lower my chances of an allergic reaction to the A/C/T cocktail. So yea, I got the fat chemo.
But as I barreled through and I blabbed to EVERYONE I saw about my diagnosis because I couldn't bear the behind the back whispers and assumptions. They were going to hear it from the (hairless) horse's mouth. I took my accrued disability time and I immersed myself in chemo treatments, volunteering at my kid’s school and their sports teams. I indulged in a weekly ritual of cancer yoga and long daily walks. I took care of me and I made memories for my kids, because well, nothing is guaranteed.
Okay, it wasn't THAT dramatic but yes, as I was finishing up chemo I was let go from my job. “Cuts” they said. “Discrimination” I said. There were lawyers and negotiations but eventually we came to agreed upon terms. I was already fighting for my life so bring it, what's one more round in the ring? I almost felt bad for them, they had no idea who they were up against. Cancer stripped away the nice, I was a warrior now.
I began to write quite by accident. There was a pity party day in between lumpectomies number two and three. Staring at my now chopped up and bandaged Frankenboobs I was depressed and incredibly frustrated by the fact that I was going into these tests and procedures totally blind. 'It's just a scan, it won't take more than an hour total' was all that was communicated to me. Oh but conveniently they left out the part where a burning dye would be injected into my nipple. They didn't even give me the opportunity to request sedation or self-medicate. I've since found out that my hospital seemed to be the only place in the first world that handled that particular test in such a barbaric manner. Every other medical center performs it while the patient is out cold, as it should be! So I began first noting all the tests and procedures I’d had at my mother’s suggestion, and she was right, because god knows I didn't want to have to repeat any of them. Then I began making sarcastic notes and observations - solely for my own amusement and added in some song lyrics that aptly described how I was feeling or what I was going though. The longer I wrote the more therapeutic it became and eventually began to think about maybe printing up my new found wisdom into pamphlets and distributing them amongst my many doctor’s offices. I couldn't bear the thought of another young woman going through what I was experiencing. At the time there weren't any books targeting the younger breast cancer patient and after many trips down the fully stacked aisles of Barnes and Noble that became clearer and clearer. I wanted to help and I wanted to make those other patients giggle a bit on their darkest days because that was what helped me. Music, laughter, and sarcasm were my coping tools and no one and nothing was safe. I mocked myself, my life, my indignities, my doctors, all of it. Humor, according to Shakespeare, is tragedy plus time, no truer words have ever been spoken. When all was said and done there were nearly 200 pages chronicling my first cancer dance. Way too many pages for a pamphlet but just enough for a quick, easy to read book. I was five years cancer free when I published "Does This Outfit Make Me Look Bald? How A Fashionista Fought Breast Cancer With Style.” Seems I'd written the very book I needed to read five years earlier.
I'd landed on my feet into a better job than the one I'd been let go from. My ceramic business was thriving and my little family unit was even closer than before. We'd become fiercely protective of each other and very tuned in to each other's needs. My two (now grown) sons, my husband and my dog are my posse! So as I picked up the pieces to my side tracked life and made a new one I had no idea what was looming in the not so distant future.
Breast cancer, stage IA HER2+ ER+/PR-
Yep, I got to do the cancer dance a second time. Cha-Cha-Cha. Radiation treatments had left me severely deformed with a little gimpy breast that folded over onto itself and I'd regretted the lumpectomy almost from the beginning. I’d realized my life would have been much less stressful had I had the mastectomy, a word I couldn’t even utter five years earlier. Couple my deformity with the fact that even though I technically had a breast I still needed a prosthetic to fill out my bra and also several biopsies of some rogue calcifications I was tapped out and eager to dispose of my no longer fabulous boobage. I found a fantastic team of surgeons and we'd booked the then termed prophylactic bilateral mastectomy for January 2013. I had a scheduled MRI for September 2012 and my surgeons said that they would use that as a pre-operative test. So that was the plan until I got a phone call telling me that something was lighting up in my gimpy boob. I asked was it scar tissue? A cyst? Calcifications? Just anything as long as it's not cancer. "No, it's lighting up in ways consistent with cancer," was the reply.
From there it was another whirlwind of tests (sufficiently self-medicated this time around), denial, tears, acceptance, and anger. Anger seemed to have superseded all the other emotions and boy was I pissed off. Once I realized I would need chemo again I wasted no time chopping off my long locks that I'd waited so patiently to grow in and I rescheduled my once prophylactic bilateral mastectomy to a now urgent mastectomy. When I went to yell at my oncologist for putting me through hell five years prior which clearly didn’t work he quickly reviewed my path reports and informed me that yes, all I had gone though did indeed work because this cancer was not a recurrence as I had initially suspected, it was a brand spanking new cancer with different properties than the first.
With those odds can’t I win the lottery?
Now, ten years past the first cancer and five past the second, counterfeit tits strapped to my chest, I think frequently about all I’ve been through, sometimes it seems as if it happened a lifetime ago – and other times it’s as vivid as yesterday. The memories linger because my second cancer was feeding off estrogen meaning that once chemo was completed I began a Tamoxifen regimen and I began I referring to myself as a Tamoxibabe - because menopausal old shrew seemed a bit harsh. I’d opted to have a prophylactic (there’s that word again) hysterectomy because I was frightened of some of the risks associated with Tamoxifen. After the surgery I was home recovering my doctor called to let me know that I had indeed dodged a bullet, my endometrial lining was already showing pre-cancerous changes after being a Tamoxibabe for just 6 months. Once I’d completed three years on Tamoxifen my doctor switched me to Arimidex and I’ll remain an Arimidiva for another seven years.
Prior to having cancer I was an extremely private person and while I’ll never subscribe to the notion that cancer is a gift (because it’s not) I’ll credit it for freeing my voice and bringing me to a much larger life purpose than just making things pretty. I’ve been given the opportunity to use my voice and my words to smooth the lumpy bumpy road for other women like me - women who were utterly gobsmacked by cancer. I’ll never forget, about three months after my book came out I received an email from someone I didn’t know – that lived 3000 miles away. She said she had to find me because she had just been diagnosed with cancer and stumbled across my book. She said that it was the only thing that made any sense to her after her diagnosis. My snarky humor and use of song lyrics really resonated with her. I was stunned. It was the first time I’d heard from someone that didn’t know me at all and I’d helped her. Me. My words. My jokes. I’d reached across the miles through the magic of iBooks and made a difference. I still get choked up thinking about it. Since then there have been many, many other women and men that loved the book, reached out to me and touched my heart … but the first one will always be special. Thankfully I count her among my friends today.
Jennifer, the original Tamoxibabe and now a rocking Arimidiva.