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How unexpected bonds supported me through breast cancer

Making memories during treatment: Love, laughter, and a little Taylor Swift for healing

Jenni Hetzel-Gaynor with her mom, brother, sister-in-law, nephews and niece outdoors

I’ve always been really close with my mom, and I had no doubt she’d be there for me every step of the way. But would my brother, Eric, and his wife, Lindsey, show up for me? Our relationship was far from “picture-perfect.” While I cared about him and his family, we hadn’t been close in years, and we didn’t see each other often.

From lump to diagnosis: Facing the uncertainty

In late 2022, I discovered a lump in my breast. Because I was relatively young and lived a mostly healthy lifestyle, I turned to Dr. Google. And after some research, I was confident I had a cyst and not cancer. However, since I had some time off from work over the holidays and was visiting my family in Indiana, I figured I would get my annual mammogram checked off my “to-do” list. I still wasn’t worried after they took me in for an ultrasound after the mammogram. But when the radiologist came into the room and said he wanted to get a biopsy scheduled ASAP, I understood I had reason to be concerned.

Less than a week later, I had an official diagnosis of stage II, HER2-positive, hormone receptor-negative breast cancer. It was February 2023. I postponed my return trip to Washington, D.C., where I was living at the time. Due to the stage and type of my cancer, the doctors suggested that I start my treatment with neoadjuvant chemotherapy. I had to make some quick decisions about where I would start my treatment. Initially, I had planned to return to D.C. for treatment. While scheduling appointments with an oncologist and surgeon in Indiana, I also sought a second opinion in D.C. I did fly out and attend those appointments, but the reality of managing treatment alone, or with my mom's occasional, flown-in support, began to sink in.

I could predict I would probably need my mom so much that she’d need her own support system.

Navigating chemotherapy and support - and a Taylor Swift concert

My mom had moved to Indiana a few years prior, to live closer to Eric, Lindsey, and their three kids. I would spend time with them during holidays and, during the pandemic, due to remote work flexibility. However, I knew my mom would need to rely on them while she was caring for me. Begrudgingly, I accepted starting treatment in Indiana.

One of my primary concerns was how the kids would handle my diagnosis. But, it turned out that Lindsey’s best friend had been diagnosed with breast cancer about a year prior, so they had some familiarity with what treatment involved. Don’t get me wrong, I know the kids still struggled seeing me without hair or feeling unwell, which broke my heart. Yet being close to them while undergoing chemotherapy was truly a blessing. Together with Lindsey, they created care packages, decorated my room during treatment (even my apartment later), and designed a countdown calendar with treats for each round of chemo. They also arranged a meal train for my mom on chemo days, which lasted six to seven hours at the infusion center.

Lindsey’s support extended further. Before my diagnosis, Eric had scored tickets for a Taylor Swift concert in Nashville for me, Lindsey, and my niece. Despite fatigue from chemo, my oncologist assured me that I could attend, and he could even adjust infusion dates if needed — his daughter is a Swiftie, and he understood how much this meant to us. Lucky for me, the concert was two weeks after my third round of chemo, so I would be dealing with mostly manageable side effects. I stuffed extra loperamide (an anti-diarrhea medicine) into all my pockets and stocked up on applesauce and oyster crackers, and we loaded into the van with our customized denim jackets. Lindsey drove us from Indiana, and while rain was expected, she had ponchos. However, a lightning delay trapped us in the concourses for four hours. We traded friendship bracelets and commiserated with other fans. When we were finally allowed to go to our seats, it was easy to forget about that interminable wait. It was the first “rain show” of the tour and was truly a night I’ll never forget.

Jenni Hetzel-Gaynor, her sister-in-law, and niece stand with their backs displaying Taylor Swift inspired denim jackets
Bared arms displaying friendship bracelets for a Taylor Swift concert

Making informed decisions: Choosing DIEP

While I was determined to create memories despite the chemo, cancer was also never far from my mind. After research and discussions, I decided to pursue DIEP reconstruction. Unavailable through my Indiana hospital, we settled on returning to D.C. for the mastectomy. Scheduling challenges required a mid-treatment trip to D.C. to meet with surgeons. With accumulating side effects, I was in no shape to fly or drive myself. So, two days after my fourth infusion, my brother loaded me, my mom, and my cat into the car, and we made the 12-hour drive from Indiana to D.C. After unpacking the car, he hopped a flight back to Indiana and worked his 24-hour shift as a firefighter the next day.

After meeting with the surgeons in D.C., I returned to Indiana and completed neoadjuvant chemo two days after my birthday. Shortly after, we returned to D.C. for the mastectomy and DIEP reconstruction. While the months of treatment were not easy, my apartment is filled with little reminders of how much my family cares for me. Recently, I traveled back to Indiana for the holidays, and it felt great to actually have the energy to play with my niece and nephews. I can’t wait to finish treatment and have more adventures with them this summer.

I’m proof that people can surprise you, if you take a step back and let them.


Please enjoy listening to some of my favorite Taylor Swift songs in the Spotify playlist below:

Jenni Hetzel-Gaynor hugs her nephews and niece with a big smile


The views and opinions of our bloggers represent the views and opinions of the bloggers alone and not those of Living Beyond Breast Cancer. Also understand that Living Beyond Breast Cancer does not medically review any information or content contained on, or distributed through, its blog and therefore does not endorse the accuracy or reliability of any such information or content. Through our blog, we merely seek to give individuals creative freedom to tell their stories. It is not a substitute for professional counseling or medical advice.


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