Richmond Hill resident Jennifer Furlong was enjoying the fruits of her labor in 2017. Not only did she and her husband Greg celebrate 20 years of marriage, their son had joined the Marine Corps and their daughter moved to Atlanta to attend college. She also published her first book, presented a TED talk and completed the first year of a Ph.D. program.
“Things were pretty great,” Furlong said. “As a Marine veteran, I prided myself in being steadfast and looking to defeat the next obstacle.” The next obstacle presented itself in October of that year when the 44-year-old was diagnosed with Stage 1 Invasive Ductal Carcinoma Breast Cancer.
“I was home alone when I got the phone call. My doctor was compassionate and asked me if I had anyone there with me. After he asked me that question, I knew it was bad so I told him to just give it to me straight. And he confirmed the tumor was malignant.”
The diagnosis shook Furlong.
“I was in disbelief and surprised and confused and scared and angry and sad all rolled up into a big ball of emotion,” she said. “After the initial shock, I immediately thought of my family, my husband and my children and how to tell them I had breast cancer. I think I was more worried about them than I was about myself at that point.”
Furlong’s breast cancer diagnosis was followed by a whirlwind of consultations, tests, surgeries and eventually five radiation treatments per week for six weeks.
“My oncologist and I decided the benefits would not outweigh the risks of chemotherapy, so I opted for radiation only. I needed time to recover from the surgeries I already had, so I waited until January 2018 to begin radiation treatments.”
The side effects to her radiation treatments included fatigue and skin changes that felt like having a sunburn. Nevertheless she had plenty of support. “I don’t think I cooked more than a handful of meals the whole time I was in radiation treatments because my friends came up with a calendar to keep me fed. That’s how we do things in the south, right?” Her husband Greg was also supportive during her radiation treatments. “My husband was my rock. He was stoic through the whole thing. On the days I needed rest, he made sure I got my rest. On the days I felt frustrated, he took the brunt of my temper tantrums. On the days I needed to cry, he held me tight.”
Although her son and daughter were miles away, they still had a huge role in helping her get through treatments. “We talked as often as possible over the phone and just hearing their voice was enough to give me strength.”
Her first mammogram after the treatments was on May 10, 2018. “That mammogram confirmed there was no evidence of disease or NED. So I’ve been NED for about 2 and a half years.” However, Furlong believes the journey isn’t over. “I think it’s easy for those who haven’t had cancer to forget that for those who have had cancer, for them the journey doesn’t end when they are declared NED,” she said. “I think a lot of people tend to think oh it’s over and you can get back to your normal self as if it never happened. I wish it were that simple. But the fact is, every time I go in for a follow up scan, I’m scared. And I know I’m not alone in feeling this way.”
Going through the journey, Furlong believes self-advocacy is important. “Follow up with your physicians after every test. It’s possible to fall through the cracks. It happened to me a couple of times,” she recalled. “My initial needle biopsy came back benign, which was false. And at one point I waited for a pathology report for so long I had to reach out to my oncologist to get him to call pathology for me.” She advised, “So stay on top of the medical staff. Also, know that you know your body better than anyone else. If something doesn’t feel right or feels off, listen to your body.”
To women who have breast cancer, Furlong says, “My most important piece of advice is to be kind to yourself. You need time to process the magnitude of the journey you’re going through. This is a big deal and whatever you’re feeling right now is the correct feeling. Some days you will hate everyone and everything. Other days you will be happy and energetic. The one thing that must remain constant is your resilience. You are so much stronger than you know.”