In honor of National Breast Cancer Awareness Month, we’re taking time to honor our patient grant recipients who have battled breast cancer – a disease affecting one in eight American women.
These fighters are full of stories – tales that inspire us and touch our hearts, even as we recognize the pain and struggles inherent in the cancer experience. We’re honored to play a positive role in the journeys of those we serve, giving a little help when they need it most.
Meet Jessica Croteau, who won her cancer battle earlier this year…
Jessica always feared she’d get breast cancer.
It runs in her family: her mother, aunt, grandmother and great grandmother all had the disease. So when she felt a lump in her breast a few years ago, she feared the worst, but still talked herself out of checking it out.
“It was painful, it hurt when I put my seatbelt on,” she remembers. “And it grew really fast.” She didn’t think breast cancer lumps hurt and grew so quickly, she says. She thought it might have resulted from a diet pill she was taking, which some researchers believe is connected to cancer.
Last fall, she finally visited her doctor, who immediately ordered a mammogram. The follow-up biopsy confirmed she had breast cancer. As with almost all cancer patients, her diagnosis set off a grueling medical regime: an experimental drug trial that extended her treatment by four months, chemotherapy and radiation, followed by a lumpectomy, and topped off by more chemotherapy.
Her treatment course ended with 30 straight days of intense radiation at Dana-Farber Cancer Center in Milford this summer, leaving her feeling like she had “a really bad sunburn.” It’s still tender, she says, and she still needs reconstructive surgery. But today, she’s cancer-free, needing only follow-up medication, treatment and monitoring through Dana-Farber.
Thankfully – due to powerful advocacy and many brave survivors – there is now a ton of positive energy around fighting breast cancer. So many women have worked hard to build awareness, remove the stigma and define the cancer battle as a heroic effort that deepens our appreciation for the unconquerable human spirit. But for many, the road to celebrating life again can be long, tough and winding.
Between cancer and her struggles to make ends meet, Jessica has endured a challenging journey, but she’s come through it stronger and more committed to focusing on positivity.
A longtime special education teacher who works with emotionally-challenged students, Jessica is currently unemployed. She found work as a long-term substitute teacher last school year, just before her lumpectomy. She pressed on bravely to keep working, never calling in sick and wearing wigs to cover her hair loss, but her position ended in June.
She loves her work and finds it very rewarding, and though she has struggled to find another position, she’s looking toward the future and hopes to both find a new job soon. Eventually, she aims to complete a master’s degree in educational leadership that will allow her to become an assistant principal.
Still, it’s hard to get by on unemployment and temporary jobs, and very difficult to job-search during cancer treatment. We’re proud we could step in and pay Jessica’s rent, when she needed assistance. “It was very helpful,” she says.
Jessica is also still working through the fall-out from her cancer, and most of all, through the emotional pain of going through it with little support from family and friends. Cancer has left her feeling alone. “Some people just couldn’t deal with my diagnosis,” she explains.
These days, she’s grateful for her rescue dog Riley, who she’s had for 10 years. And she’s benefitting from therapy to help deal with all the emotional and physical issues cancer brings. “Losing my hair – twice – was really traumatic for me. I had long, curly, beautiful blonde hair. I hated wearing wigs.”
She knows there is much to look forward to. She’s written a children’s book, which she hopes to get published: “Funky Monkey’s Great Adventure: A Happy Story For Kids With Cancer.” (She wants to donate some of her proceeds to our Foundation too!)
She’s put herself on our volunteer list and tries to involve herself with cancer fundraising events and efforts.
And she was really looking forward to watching some Sunday football with Joe and other former Patriots at the annual “Game with the Greats” at Gillette Stadium last weekend. She even got a comp ticket when she called Gillette, where she used to work as a security guard about a decade ago.
Jessica is a HUGE Pats fan. “I have a Pats tattoo,” she brags. “I have a shrine!” She enjoyed receiving many autographed pictures and items from players when she worked at the stadium, and she hopes to add to her collection.
She’s working very hard to stay positive, and see the good in life. And we’re rooting for her to conquer depression and job loss, just as she conquered cancer!
“I basically dealt with a lot on my own and I got through it,” she says, with pride. “I’m still here.”
– – Jen Andruzzi