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Patient’s experience emphasizes the importance of early detection

When Jessica Morgan received news last year that she had breast cancer, her first thought was that it was a mistake. She was just 35 and didn’t have a family history of breast cancer.

“I was quite shocked,” she said. “I thought they had mixed my results up with someone else’s.”

Six months before, she felt a lump and went in for a mammogram. At the time, the cluster of cysts wasn’t cause for concern. But when Jessica noticed it was getting larger, she went in again. Sure enough, it was breast cancer. She started chemotherapy in April, and finished her final treatment on Sept. 17. While her latest MRI showed the cancer was gone, she will continue with immunotherapy through the winter and is getting a double-mastectomy.

Because her initial results indicated she didn’t have much to worry about, it might have been easy for Jessica to stop paying attention to the lump. But because she was proactive and went in right when she noticed a size difference, her cancer was caught before it entered her lymph nodes.

“My biggest piece of advice is to be proactive, be aggressive about it if you’re concerned about anything at all,” she said. “If I would have waited, who knows where my life would be right now?”

Reflecting on her treatment journey – one she and her family have had to face during a pandemic – she said support from friends and family have been key. The side effects of chemotherapy, including nausea, hormone changes (she now takes thyroid medication), and a lower white blood cell count, plus the uncertainty of the pandemic and having a small child, led to many difficult days.

“Some days you just don’t want to smile,” she said.

Which is why the number one piece of advice she has for those supporting people through cancer is: “Just listen. There will be days when they’re absolutely miserable and need to just let it out. My sisters and my friends have been really good about just letting me vent.”

Another source of support was her care team at the John T. Vucurevich Cancer Care Institute (CCI). She said her oncologist, Than Than Aye, M.D., is not only highly knowledgeable and good at what she does, but has cheered her on throughout her treatment. She also felt welcomed by the other CCI staff.

“The nurses there are amazing. Everyone knows you by name and they greet you.”

On her last day of chemotherapy, the nurses and others gathered around as she rang the bell signifying the end of her treatment. It was a special moment. Other patients and caregivers behind curtains in other treatment areas were all cheering for her.

Even though she’s headed out of the fog of chemotherapy and is cancer free, Jessica will still be getting used to her new self. Those who haven’t experienced chemotherapy or cancer may not understand how the act of cutting your hair, or having no hair at all, affects a person’s identity.

“I cut nine inches off when I learned I would be going through chemo,” she said. “I’d never really thought about it, but my hair was a huge part of my identity. Even now when I look in the mirror, I don’t recognize myself. People have said, ‘It’s just hair, it will grow back,’ but it really took an emotional toll on me.”

But she’s moving forward and is hopeful, feeling thankful that she caught her cancer early enough. Thank you for telling your story, Jessica.

Jessica’s cancer is not genetic, which underscores the importance of preventative exams and screenings, even for younger, healthy women. Monument Health offers 3D Genius Mammography in all markets – Custer, Lead-Deadwood, Rapid City, Spearfish and Sturgis. 3D Mammography can detect breast cancer earlier than traditional mammography, and it can better examine deep tissue. Call your primary care provider to schedule your mammogram.

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