In May of 2011, Jennifer Campisano was nursing her baby boy when she noticed something was amiss. “You know, everything is lumpy and changing anyway, but I noticed one spot under my breast, a hard spot, and I remember distinctly thinking, was my rib always shaped like this?” Campisano said.
She mentioned the lump to her OB/GYN, who dismissed it as a clogged milk duct. “Put a hot compress on it and take some Tylenol,” he told Campisano.
Later, at an appointment with another doctor, Campisano mentioned the lump again. The second doctor also downplayed her worries, but asked her if she wanted to have it checked out. She did.
In August of 2011, at 32 years old, Jennifer Campisano was diagnosed with stage IV, metastatic breast cancer. Her son, Quinn, was five months old. She found it difficult to believe.
Campisano had no family history of cancer, breast or otherwise. Both sets of her great-grandparents had lived long enough for her to know them. Her paternal grandparents are still alive.
She wrote on Huffington Post,
“People don't die in my family so much as wear out sometime around their ninetieth birthday.”
Campisano is gracious about the first doctor who dismissed her concerns. No one expects a young woman, a young mom nursing an infant, to have cancer, especially with no family history of it, she said.
Since her diagnosis, well-intentioned friends and strangers offer a constant barrage of remedies:
“. . . avoid all sugar, don't use plastic, don't eat anything processed, clear your energy fields, tie up emotional loose ends, drink a juice from a guy I know in Mexico, visit this guy I've heard about in Brazil, drink more red wine, avoid all alcohol and -- poof! -- I'd get to live another dozen years, and then a dozen after that if I'm really lucky. It would be nice if it were that simple, wouldn't it?”
The prescriptions we offer ourselves and one another, she mused, are a way of compartmentalizing cancer, a way of telling ourselves that we are protected — little talismans of control, so to speak.
Before her diagnosis, Campisano was the model of good health: lean and fit, a runner who practiced yoga five times a week, ate healthy — mostly organically — and limited red meat.
Breast cancer is scary, and those of us as yet undiagnosed want to think we can immunize ourselves against it with information and healthy choices. While we can control our diet, exercise and alcohol intake, our genes, race and family history are etched in stone.
As women, whatever our lifestyle, we have a one in eight chance of developing breast cancer in our lifetime. For a list of the risk factors read here.
Every October during Breast Cancer Awareness Month, we are deluged by pink products and pink ribbons and survivors and their loved ones participate in Race for the Cure. However, of all research money raised annually, only 5 percent goes toward studying metastatic breast cancer, the form that kills most of the 40,000 women who die of breast cancer annually, according to the European Journal of Cancer.
Gratitude reverberates throughout Campisano’s story of survival. She is grateful for good health insurance and for progress in treatment of the disease — the treatments that are keeping her alive today didn’t exist 10 years ago.
She is grateful that the community of cancer survivors immediately embraced her after her diagnosis, and that the available treatments are working. She is grateful for her husband, even-tempered and rational, unflappable as she navigates cancer’s ups and downs and steroid-induced, emotional prickliness.
In the early days after her diagnosis Campisano thought, “I’m just going to beat this and be done with it.” She didn’t think her cancer would ever be a part of her then-infant son’s vocabulary. Her son, Quinn, is now 3 years old.
I asked her how she and her husband explain her illness to their son. They don’t bring up the subject of death and are careful not to use the “C” word. Like his dad the scientist, Quinn is already classifying the information at his disposal, telling his mom just the other day,
“I go to school, Daddy goes to work and you go to the doctor.”
At our interview, Jennifer Campisano is stylishly dressed. Her hair has grown in, her makeup is understated because she hardly needs it — she radiates vitality. She doesn’t look like a cancer patient, like a woman with a port in her chest who receives chemotherapy every three weeks.
Campisano looks so good, in fact, that the Today Show retracted an invitation to appear on their #PinkPower breast cancer series with Joan Lunden. Jennifer just wasn’t bald enough. You can read about the incident on her blog, Booby and the Beast.
That blog post ended up on the Today Show producer’s desk, inspiring an apology and an invitation to be interviewed about her experience with metastatic breast cancer. You can watch that segment below:
Campisano’s self-care includes practicing yoga, guided meditation, some Reiki and writing. She started the aforementioned blog, contributes to Huffington Post and recently finished the first draft of her memoir.
“I write because I feel antsy when I don’t, better when I do, and I believe that processing all of the shit I’ve been through helps clear it out of my system, helps me be healthier,” Campisano said.
And as a graduate of Johns Hopkins Univeristy and a former lobbyist in Washington D.C., Campisano is a reader. Her favorites include cancer memoirs such as Who in this Room and Red Sunshine, but also memoirs of struggle such as Wild and Walking Papers.
After her diagnosis, Campisano said that she felt a whole-hearted, whole-bodied, overwhelming, vehement need to stay on this earth to protect her son.
Three years later, she is keeping that promise. Scan results this November marked one year of NED — No Evidence of Disease.
The night before I met with Campisano, her son Quinn brought up the subject of death with her. He said, “I don't want you to go anywhere. I don't want you to go away from me."
"Let's just stay here together as a family for as long as we can,” Campisano told him, her words echoing the wisdom of the ancients.
All any of us has of life and love and beauty is contained within this present moment, no matter what our test results say.
Do Docs Miss Breast Cancer Warning Signs in Breastfeeding Mothers? BestForBabes.org. Retrieved December 5, 2014. http://www.bestforbabes.org/do-docs-miss-breast-cancer-warning-signs-in-breastfeeding-mothers
Breast Cancer Risk in American Women. cancer.gov. Retrieved December 5, 2014. http://www.cancer.gov/cancertopics/factsheet/detection/probability-breast-cancer
Metastatic Cancer. cancer.gov. Retrieved December 6, 2014. http://www.cancer.gov/cancertopics/factsheet/Sites-Types/metastatic
UM researchers take new view in understanding metastatic breast cancer. BaltimoreSun.com. Retrieved December 7, 2014. http://articles.baltimoresun.com/2013-10-20/health/bs-hs-breast-cancer-microtentacles-20131017_1_cells-primary-tumor-breast
SEER Stat Fact Sheets: Breast Cancer. Cancer.gov. Retrieved December 8, 2014. http://seer.cancer.gov/statfacts/html/breast.html
Cancer metastasis as a therapeutic target. European Journal of Cancer. Retrieved December 16, 2014. http://www.ejcancer.com/article/S0959-8049(10)00166-8/abstract
Reviewed December 10, 2014
by Michele Blacksberg RN
Edited by Jody Smith