Turning 30 was a milestone year for Jennifer Leitner, an Easton, MA-based Red Cross Executive Assistant. Jennifer and her husband, Evan, had been having difficulties with pregnancy – but on October 29, 2014, the couple welcomed their son, Max, into the world.
The joy was all encompassing, and the young family’s first year together was everything Jennifer hoped it would be – save for for a lurking pain in her breast that just wouldn’t seem to go away.
“I really started to notice it throughout the Summer and Fall of 2015, but I thought it was hormones,” Jennifer said in a recent conversation with the Joe Andruzzi Foundation. “My mother and husband were pushing me to get it checked out because the pain just wasn’t normal.”
The then-31 year-old agreed enough was enough that Fall, and shortly after seeking a medical consultation, doctors discovered a lump in her left breast.
“At 31, I wasn’t old enough to be getting regular mammograms,” Jennifer says. “They sent me for one, and shortly after that I was getting a biopsy. Everyone along the way was really positive and said it was probably nothing – maybe just a calcification in the breast – but on October 27, 2015, two days before Max’s first birthday, we got the call no one ever wants to get.
”It was cancer. Stage I breast cancer, specifically.
Even considering her family’s history with the disease, the diagnosis came as a shock.
“My grandmother had [breast cancer] when she was in her late seventies or early eighties, and my other grandmother had ovarian cancer,” Jennifer says. “In fact, all four of my grandparents at some point had cancer. I had been screened for the BRCA genes [mutations that increase a woman’s risk of breast and ovarian cancer] and other carriers, and luckily I didn’t test positive for any of those, which made it even more of a surprise.”
Almost immediately, Jennifer and her husband were at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston consulting with surgeons about the best plan of attack against the disease.
“I was going through tests and weighing all of my options, and in that short time period the doctors found something in my right breast,” Jennifer recalls. “Thankfully, it turned out to be nothing, but the scare of more cancer was enough of a shock.”
“My doctor told me there would be a 50% chance that the cancer would return at some point, and I just couldn’t imagine putting my family or son through the ordeal again,” Jennifer says. “So, I opted for a double mastectomy.”
On December 28, 2015 – just days after their family celebrated its second holiday season together – surgeons successful removed both of Jennifer’s breasts, taking cancer cells, present or future, with them. No treatment, or chemotherapy, needed.
Jennifer Leitner’s battle against the cancer in her body was over, but a lengthy – and grueling – road to recovery awaited the young, working-class family.
“It was a very painful process – I couldn’t take care of my son, I couldn’t even hold him,” Jennifer remembers. “We also have two little dogs who sleep in the bed with us, and I couldn’t risk of them jumping on me. In the end, it was clear to everyone that I needed my own space to recover.”
Jennifer would need constant care, but her husband, Evan, also needed to continue to work around the clock to make up for the income Jennifer was unable to bring in while being out of work. There was baby food and diapers to buy, mortgages to pay, daycare bills, and now, a desperate need for someone to care for Jennifer over the course of her two-month recovery.
Ultimately, the family decided she should move in with her in-laws, who lived just 10 minutes away from Jennifer and Evan’s home. In the meantime, Max’s care would be split between Evan, daycare, Jennifer’s parents, and other friends and family members who wanted to chip in.
“I spent six weeks in their guest bedroom recovering, and my mother-in-law took care of me around the clock,” Jennifer says. “We were so thankful, and since the house was close to ours, my husband and son would come over and visit me on most weeknights and weekends.”
Jennifer and Evan’s amazing families created the ultimate support group, but there were still bills to pay.
“Luckily my manager at work was amazing,” Jennifer says, “[My company] let me come back to work part time, and I don’t know what I would have done if I had to go back to work right away. But still, my husband and I were worried because we knew I would be out for a while. I was able to apply for disability leave – getting a little less than half of my salary – but there were tons of bills to pay.”
“My husband took on all of the bills so I wouldn’t freak out about it,” she remembers, “but I knew he was worrying about it.”
“That’s when we met Kristina, our social worker at the hospital, who helped us fill out paperwork for financial assistance,” Jennifer remembers. “She introduced us to the Joe Andruzzi Foundation, and when we found out that JAF was going to pay for one month of our mortgage, it was like biggest weight was lifted off of our shoulders.”
“We didn’t have to worry about that bill for the month I was staying with my in-laws, and that allowed me to focus on my recovery,” Jennifer says. “It was humongous help that our family will never forget.”
The Joe Andruzzi Foundation’s assistance came in a time of need for the Leitner’s, and the couple urges patients in similar situations to seek out all of their available resources.
“[If you’re battling cancer and need financial assistance] go talk to the social workers at whatever hospital you are at – they will know that JAF is out there, and that there is help available to you,” says Jennifer. “You will have moments where you feel like the recovery will never end, but you have to believe that you will get through it. You have to focus on remaining strong and make sure you find the help that is out there.”
These days – after months of healing – Jennifer is easing back into the life she lived before cancer came about. Jennifer recently went back to work full time, and she is starting to feel more like herself. It’s been a long, challenging road, but the Leitner family has come out on the other side with a new perspective on life.
“Before I had surgery, there would be days where I would start crying,” Jennifer remembers. “I didn’t know if I’d be alive to see my son grow up, that was probably the hardest, but when I got the call that I was cancer free, it was the best news I ever got in my life.”
“Now every time something goes wrong in our lives, all we say is I’m here, I’m alive, I’m healthy,” Jennifer says. “I still have some procedures to go through on the reconstruction side, but knowing I’m cancer free now, it’s a walk in the park.”Her biggest takeaway from the past year?
“You just have to remain positive.”
Words to live by, indeed.