When Karena Jefferson first noticed the lump in her right breast in March 2008, she dismissed it. Maybe because she hoped the lump was no cause for worry and would go away, or maybe because of a paralyzing fear that it might be something more, it wasn’t until June that she decided to mention the lump during a routine visit to her primary care physician. The next two weeks would be a whirlwind for the 35-year-old single mother from Ohio.
Within days, Karena would undergo her first mammogram, ultrasound and biopsy. She was diagnosed with an invasive, fast-growing triple-negative breast cancer. Because these tumors test negative for two hormone receptors—the] estrogen and progesterone receptors—and extra copies of a gene, HER2 (human epidermal growth factor receptor 2), these cancers do not benefit from many available treatments that target hormones or HER2.
“I did not break down. I did not cry,” Karena says. “My first thought was, ‘OK, what do we need to do?’ And then, ‘How am I going to explain this to my 6-year-old son?’”
Karena’s ex-husband has a heart condition, and their son Noah watched as his dad was in and out of the hospital. “I didn’t want Noah to think he had two sick parents,” says Karena. “But I didn’t want to shelter him either—children know when you’re not being truthful.”
At her doctor’s suggestion, Karena brought Noah to her next appointment. The surgeon drew a picture and explained that mommy had something inside her that needed to be fixed. She would need medicine, and she would lose her hair. But she would still be the same mommy.
In July, Karena’s surgeon performed a lumpectomy with a sentinel node biopsy. The cancer was stage II, and the tumor was larger than anticipated. A second tumor had also started to grow.
Karena underwent chemotherapy, the standard treatment for triple-negative breast cancer. She also volunteered to participate in a clinical trial studying the targeted therapy Avastin (bevacizumab) as a treatment for triple-negative breast cancer, but by October, the side effects from bevacizumab were taking their toll. Karena’s heart rate had dropped so low that she was pulled from the study and placed on heart medication. She continued to have side effects from chemotherapy, including overwhelming nausea and fatigue.
“I’m not gonna lie, chemo was rough, and there were times I wanted to give up,” Karena says. “I was sick all the time. But somewhere in my mind, my faith told me I could push on.”
Karena’s family pitched in to care for Noah for a few days following each chemotherapy session while Karena recuperated. “For me, asking for help was something I had to learn how to do,” she says.
Throughout her journey, Karena was diligent in her research. She discovered the Triple Negative Breast Cancer Foundation website and communicated online with women who had similar diagnoses. After learning that women with triple-negative breast cancer have an increased risk of developing another primary breast cancer, she chose to forego radiation and opted for a double mastectomy followed by reconstruction.
The pain, swelling and numbness Karena had in her hands and feet during chemotherapy remain in her hands today, a condition diagnosed as peripheral neuropathy. While the medicine Neurontin (gabapentin) lessens the pain slightly, the condition forced her to leave her accounting job at the Ohio State Highway Patrol and go on disability.
“I feel like I am slowly recovering, but I still have days where I get very fatigued from doing just simple things,” Karena says. “I know that my body will never be the same, and I am understanding of that.”
Now two-and-a-half years after her diagnosis, Karena spends her time volunteering with Noah’s school and Young Survival Coalition.
“The journey has been hard, but a blessing to me in that I can give back and help someone else,” she says.
“Going through everything has really showed me that we should not take what we have for granted and we should live life to the fullest,” Karena says. She also believes that “this entire ordeal has been for a reason.”
“When I was younger, I was going to school to become a child psychologist. The neuropathy in my hands prevents me from spending long stretches typing on a computer—a requirement for the accounting job I had to leave. It made me realize that maybe I’m supposed to be on the path to teaching, or finishing my counseling degree,” Karena says.
“I was put here to help. I feel in my heart this happened because I was supposed to be doing something else—what I was meant to do—and that is where I’m going.”
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