On the day of her mother’s 60th birthday party in 2015, Maple Ridge’s Jennifer Kelly was sitting on distressing news that forever changed her life.
While cake was being shared and gifts exchanged, Kelly, 33 at the time, kept quiet with a cloud of unease hanging above her – that morning she was told she had breast cancer.
Kelly, now approaching a five-year benchmark without cancer, is sharing her emotional journey with The News as a way to drum up support for the Hometown Heroes Lottery, which benefits an array of health needs in the province.
“We went, and my whole family was there. Everybody that is close to us. It was just a big, huge celebration. It was so weird to be there and have this news hanging and not be able to tell anybody,” Kelly said.
Kelly started telling her family and a few friends about the diagnosis the following day. Eventually, she stopped sharing her diagnosis, she said, because each time it turned into her comforting her friends that she will be OK.
“Those words, ‘I have breast cancer’ don’t really roll off your tongue very easily. It was very hard,” Kelly said.
On the morning of surgery, while she was in hospital, her husband hit ‘send’ on a prepared email to her closest contacts informing them of her news.
Diagnosed at a relatively early age, Kelly made the “drastic decision” to have a double mastectomy, paired with 21 bouts of chemotherapy.
“I lost two friends to breast cancer,” she said Monday. “I opted for both because I just wanted to make sure I was doing everything I could to make sure that this didn’t come back. I knew, based on the type of breast cancer I had, that if I didn’t treat it aggressively, it wouldn’t have been a matter of if it came back, it would be when it came back.”
At the time, her son was four years old and her daughter was one.
“I had to survive for them. To have a memory of their mother – not just a photograph or a story from a loved one. A real memory,” she said in a news release about her story.
Kelly described being a patient as her full-time job. When she’s in a reflective state, thinking about that challenging year, Kelly said she can’t believe it was a reality.
However, she’s counting her blessings.
“It was quite difficult. If you think about people that have to undergo way more treatments than I did and had a worse prognosis. I feel like I got really lucky that I caught it as early as I did,” she said. “I’m the one that found it, I caught it myself. I went to the doctor and my doctor sent me for an ultrasound, then they did a mammogram, biopsy, and then I got the diagnosis after that.”
Kelly was given the option to have an immediate reconstruction, but she turned it down.
“I was just so upset about everything I just wanted them gone, I didn’t want anything to do with them at that point.”
However, her doctor convinced her otherwise, reportedly saying that she’s too young to go through life without breast reconstruction.
“I also started to notice that a lot of my clothing didn’t fit properly. A lot of women’s clothing is cut for someone who has breasts, not for someone who doesn’t. You don’t really realize that until you don’t have them.”
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In November 2016, Kelly went to a fundraising gala for her child’s school and for the first time since her mastectomy, felt like a woman again.
“I wore this beautiful dress and I felt like… I’d just had the tissue expanders in, I didn’t have complete surgery yet, but I felt female again,” she said. “I felt like a woman. I still had short hair – my hair was still growing back – but I felt really good about myself again.”
In B.C., approximately 2,000 mastectomies are performed every year, with 65 per cent of breast reconstruction surgeries being performed at UBC Hospital.
According to Vancouver General Hospital, studies show that emotional, social, and functional well-being, vitality, body image and general mental health are improved in women who have breast reconstruction surgery after their mastectomy.
Kelly shared a message to other women who have been diagnosed with breast cancer.
“It was the hardest thing I had to do, emotionally, physically, it was crazy. It’s really good to talk to people about it, it’s really good to lean on people for support because people just want to help. It’s really, really hard. Never underestimate that or don’t downplay that. but once you get through it, you’ll be like ‘Wow, I did that.'”
Kelly’s story was featured in a news release regarding the Vancouver General Hospital Foundation, UBC Foundation and Burn Fund Hometown Heroes Lottery.
Tickets for the 2020 lottery went on sale April 22 and will be available until July 23.
Hometown Heroes lottery grand prize homes are located in Vancouver, White Rock, Courtenay, Abbotsford, Cultus Lake, Sooke, Penticton and Kelowna.
Ticket purchases raise funds for most urgent hospital needs and support first responder resilience programs. Proceeds also support specialized adult health services, research, and drive innovation and sustainable health care at VGH, UBC Hospital, GF Strong Rehab Centre, Vancouver Coastal Health Research Institute and Vancouver Community Health Services, the release notes. The lottery also supports programs for burn survivors.
The grand prize winner is able to choose a home package, valued at more than $2 million, or request $2.1 million tax-free cash.
Prizes and information on the lottery, including the Daily Cash Plus Game and 50/50 Plus Lottery, are available at https://www.heroeslottery.com