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Breast Cancer

Braving Breast Cancer: Just Do It!

Jana Brightwell sitting on a bench

Breast cancer survivor Jana Brightwell, pictured here on the NIH campus in Bethesda, Md., hopes her story helps other women.
Photo: Naomi Miller

By Christopher Klose

A couple of weeks after injuring her rib in a car accident, Jana Brightwell, 59, of Bethesda, Md., happened to notice a lump under her armpit. "Then I found one in my breast, deep down, and that shot me right to my doctor," she says.

After a series of mammograms, MRIs, and biopsies, she was diagnosed with stage two infiltrating ductal carcinoma, one of the commonest forms of breast cancer in the United States. "Like most women, I had taken my body for granted, hadn't examined myself regularly, and discovered the cancer by accident," she admits.

Despite surviving an earlier bout of malignant skin cancer at age 49, she wasn't prepared for her latest battle. "Breast cancer is not something you'd wish on anyone. It's a family disease and affects everyone. It took the wind out of my husband David's sails, but if it weren't for him, I wouldn't have gotten through it," Brightwell says. "You need to build a support system of family and friends. They make a world of difference."

Because the cancer had spread to her lymph nodes, and the lump in her breast was large enough to warrant a mastectomy, Brightwell knew she would need to undergo surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation. But in what order? "My oncologist helped me prioritize. I chose to have chemotherapy first, to shrink the tumor so we could do a lumpectomy instead of removing my breast entirely."

Over 18 weeks, she had six sessions of a three-drug combination chemotherapy. It was the roughest part of her treatment. "I lost my hair, my appetite, my bones ached, and I couldn't get out of bed after the first session. You don't realize how sick you can get," she says. But she vowed to move on, despite the fatigue, forgetfulness caused by the chemotherapy, the anxiety, and fear.

"You need to build a support system of family and friends. They make a world of difference."

— Jana Brightwell

Midway through her chemotherapy, her tumor had shrunk in half, as hoped ("I was very fortunate!"), and she could have her lumpectomy. On November 18, 2009, her surgeon successfully removed her tumor and, "to be on the safe side," her underarm lymph nodes. Six weeks later, she began the final phase of her treatment: 45 minutes a day of radiation therapy, five days a week, for seven weeks in a row. Her therapy lasted until the end of February.

Up to now, she has only shared her story with close friends. But at her daughter's urging, Brightwell agreed to go public in this magazine. "During chemo, I sat with a roomful of women going through the same thing as me, and I was inspired by their stories. They were willing to do whatever it took to get better. I hope my story can help at least one woman deal with her fears."

Jana Brightwell with her husband and daughter

Breast cancer survivor Jana Brightwell, pictured here with her husband and daughter.
Photo: Jana Brightwell 

Jana Brightwell says, "Just Do It!"

  1. Examine your breasts every month. If you don't, you're not familiar with yourself.
  2. Any doubts or questions—ask your healthcare provider.
  3. Build a support system of family and friends.
  4. Let them help you. It helps you and them.
  5. Learn all about your cancer and the side effects of treatment.
  6. Do what helps—meditation, yoga, a regular routine.
  7. Look for humor where you can in the cancer process.
  8. Do whatever it takes to get better.

Spring / Summer 2010 Issue: Volume 5 Number 2 Pages 20 – 21