Grand Junction teacher’s courageous battle with breast cancer, twice
Breast cancer is the most common cancer in women other than skin cancer. The average risk of a woman developing breast cancer is 13% or a 1 in 8 chance. At 33, that chance became a reality for Grand Junction school teacher Jennifer Armendariz.
"I never expected this would happen to me. I have no history of breast cancer in my family. And, of course, my fear was not being there to see my kids grow up," Armendariz said.
Jennifer's cancer was very aggressive. She underwent 17 rounds of chemotherapy, a lumpectomy, and 25 rounds of radiation and was hopeful for a healthy future. But less than a year later, she was devastated that her cancer returned to the same spot.
"The second diagnosis was even harder in many ways because I knew what was coming. You know exactly what your world is going to look like. My hair was just growing back, and I was facing treatment again. I had just gotten my life back and had the rug pulled out again. It was earth-shattering," Armendariz said.
Jennifer listened to her doctors with her first cancer diagnosis and followed their care plan. This time, though, Jennifer's mindset was different.
That research led her to the Cancer Centers of Colorado at St. Mary's and the office of medical oncologist Alicia Swink, MD. "When I first met Jennifer, I knew she was coming to me with a difficult story and situation. She was taking no chances. She did her research, and she made a careful decision of where to receive care," Dr. Swink said.
"My first meeting with Dr. Swink was wonderful. We spent at least an hour together going over my entire history. I had a really good feeling about her from the beginning. We are both very positive people and connected," Armendariz said.
The St. Mary's tumor board, a group of oncology experts from different specialties, reviewed Jennifer's case and decided she would benefit greatly from a new chemotherapy that had only been on the market for several years and was used more often for stage 4 breast cancer patients.
"St. Mary's and Dr. Swink went to bat for me to get the treatment approved by insurance. They had to fight for it," Armendariz said. "It became apparent that Jennifer's cancer was resistant to the traditional chemotherapy approach. We knew that there was a new drug on the market that would be effective for her. We had to discuss with her insurance and get the support of other physicians and teams to get this approved and to move forward with treating her with this novel approach," Dr. Swink said.
At first, the new chemotherapy worked wonders on Jennifer's tumor. It had shrunk significantly. However, after several more rounds of treatment, the tumor stabilized and stopped responding. "At that point, I knew I had to get into surgery. I had already had a lumpectomy, so deciding to have a mastectomy was easy. I knew I needed to do whatever it took to be around for my kids," Armendariz said.
Jennifer selected general surgeon Joyce Sekharan, MD, to perform the surgery. Sekharan is also the Breast Cancer Program director at St. Mary's.
"Jennifer was so knowledgeable and came into it with such a great attitude. Her cancer was large, and we were a little uncertain if some of the spots on the MRI were cancer or scar tissue.
But Jennifer and I made a plan together that we needed to be aggressive," Dr. Sekharan said.
In the days leading up to surgery, Jennifer was hopeful yet concerned that they couldn't remove all the cancer. "Jennifer's surgery was a bilateral mastectomy with reconstruction. I did have to take some of the muscle because the cancer had invaded the muscle. But her surgery was a resounding success," Sekharan smiles.
Jennifer received the news she was desperately waiting for a few days after surgery. Dr. Sekharan achieved clear margins and believed she removed all the cancer. "When I got the news, it was such a relief. I just want to extend a thank you to Dr. Swink and Dr. Sekharan and all of my doctors and nurses at St. Mary's for taking such good care of me and for really valuing my life."
"I always try to find a connection with my patients. With Jennifer, that was easy. You put your whole heart and soul into being there with them every step of the way, matching them, heartbeat for heartbeat. Our patients are never alone. We have a team guiding them from diagnosis through the wonderful phase of survivorship," Dr. Swink said.
Women over the age of 40 or with a family history of breast cancer are encouraged to get a yearly screening mammogram. Routine mammograms are covered by insurance and can be scheduled online at stmarysgj.org/mammo.