Jamie Holden has a special message for breast cancer patients who come through the pre-operation department: I know you’re scared, and that’s OK, because it’s not an easy journey, “but it’s worth the fight.”
“Because you can still be standing here five years cancer free, like I am,” she said. “I did that battle twice, and I’m still here. Still kicking and still enjoying life.”
Holden, a licensed nursing assistant at the University of Vermont Medical Center, is a two-time survivor of breast cancer. At 36, she’s been through 10 rounds of chemotherapy, nearly three dozen radiation treatments and eventually, a double mastectomy.
After noticing a lump in her breast, she visited her primary care physician, who requested a mammogram. As a 29-year-old with no history of breast cancer in her family, odds were good that it was a benign cyst. But then came the ultrasound, and then the biopsy, and soon after she had been placed her among the thousands and thousands of other women who receive the same dreaded diagnosis each year. She started chemo two weeks later, and returned for the outpatient treatment every other week from June until October. Only a month later did she realize the extent of what she had been through.
“I was so numb mentally and emotionally,” she said. “I didn’t really feel anything. I was just sick all the time. Nauseous. Exhausted. I didn’t even know how to feel.”
In December of 2012, she underwent a lumpectomy, a surgical procedure to remove cancerous or other abnormal tissue from the breast, and six weeks later began radiation treatment. Finally, in early 2013, she received the all clear.
Her life slowly returned to normal over the next year. She was back at work, and her energy started to recover. “Everything was great,” she said. The sense of optimism that prevailed even when an oncologist found another lump: She thought it was just scar tissue, the remnants of a battle already won.
Then came the tests, and again the diagnosis, and before she knew it she was face to face with yet another long road to recovery. It could have been a defeating blow — “I can’t do this again,” she told her husband when they learned the news. But he would not let her quit, and she decided to get a mastectomy.
“It was a really hard decision,” Holden said. “It was a decision I had made before I was even diagnosed. I had discussed it with my family and I had made the mental decision that if I ever had to do it again … we wouldn’t go through it again.”
“If I had to do this a second time, there would not be a third time,” she said.
A month after the surgery, she was back in for chemo. And though a few infections prompted her oncologists to cut the regimen short, it had seemed to do the trick: Holden has been in remission for five years now.
Looking back, she believes the experience has made her a better person, helping to be more empathetic to the plights of others. It’s also made her better at her job: She said she’s had a few patients come back after their surgeries to tell her that she had helped them in their own fight.
“I tell people, ‘Be yourself,’” she said. “‘Find what makes you tick and makes you happy, and continue to do it because that’s what’s going to make you get through it.’”