Jessica Gardner of Niles was diagnosed with breast cancer in December 2016 when she was eight months pregnant with her daughter, Savannah.
“I didn’t even think it was possible to get cancer when you were pregnant,” the Brookfield High School English teacher said. “The body is so healthy when making a new human being. Call me naive, but this doesn’t happen, (I thought).”
She has turned her journey into teaching moments in the classroom. But it took a while to get back. She quit work the day she was diagnosed with cancer.
“I couldn’t go back. For two weeks after my diagnosis, I just cried and cried,” Gardner said.
Afterward, doctors recommended she stay home because cancer treatments wreak havoc on the immune system.
Her students didn’t forget her.
“They are the most thoughtful, genuine kids,” Gardner, 35, said. “They took up a collection for me. They sent clothing and toys for the baby, books for me to read while in treatment; they sent me letters. I would send back pictures of the baby.”
Now that she’s back to teaching full time, “I’ve been very open with them about my experience. I try to answer any question. More often than not, they know someone who has been through it. I’m big about education. To know it is to not fear it.”
She’s also been named the recipient of this year’s This Means War 3-on-3 Basketball Tournament and Chinese Auction Oct. 13 at Chalker High School in Southington.
“Her family has lost thousands of dollars in income because her husband, Brian, missed work so he could attend Jessica’s doctor appointments and surgeries,” said Kelli Weir, This Means War Against Breast Cancer board member. “And this is all on top of the new expenses that come with having a baby.
Gardner underwent breast reconstruction surgery in July, a procedure that cost about $5,500 after health insurance, Weir said. That doesn’t include other out-of-pocket expenses for follow-up appointments or medication, which Gardner must take for 20 years to deter new cancer cells from forming.
“What we love about Jessica is her attitude and determination to beat the disease so she can be healthy and a role model for her daughter,” Weir said. “She’s also determined to spread the word that women need to check their breasts for abnormalities — even when they are pregnant.”
Gardner said she found the lump when she was seven months pregnant. The next month, she was diagnosed with Stage III B breast cancer.
“Because I was so late in my pregnancy, they decided to take the baby a month early — she was about 3 1/2 weeks early — so I could start treatment right away. Ten days after my C-section, I had a bilateral mastectomy,” Gardner said.
A tumor bigger than a baseball and other cancerous tissue had been growing in her right breast.
Her chest and upper arms were stressed from the mastectomy and her abdomen was still healing from the C-section. She was prohibited from lifting barely any weights.
“I couldn’t breastfeed. I had to return all that stuff,” Gardner said. “I couldn’t hold my newborn. I had to change everything I had planned for the new baby.”
Two months after Savannah was born, Gardner began six months of chemotherapy. In the meantime, her mom, husband and best friend took over care for Savannah around the clock. Even trying to put a diaper on a baby when you’re tired from chemotherapy is an adventure, she said.
“You know how they talk about new-mom tired? I was now new-mom-going-through-chemo tired.”
Chemotherapy was followed by 33 rounds of radiation over six weeks. In September 2017 came a preventive hysterectomy because her cancer was caused by a BRAC 1 gene mutation. It means the threat of cancer is much greater than that of an average woman.
“So I was going through menopause at 34, which wasn’t a highlight,” Gardner said.
“I started breast reconstruction this past summer,” she said. “My new breasts are what used to be my stomach. That healing process was probably the worst I’ve ever experienced. It was probably a 30 on a scale of one to 10.”
Phase II of reconstruction surgery is set for December, but it doesn’t draw the journey to a close.
“I still have the (BRAC1 gene) mutation. There’s no way around the mutation. My body cannot fight off the cancer,” she said.
Her life includes frequent visits with the dermatologist to search for melanoma, checkups for colon cancer and pancreatic cancer, including a colonoscopy every year or two, and anti-hormone treatments because it’s hormone-onset.
“Right now there’s no evidence of disease, which is excellent,” Gardner said. “Once I get to the five-year mark, that’s when I’m going to celebrate — because I WILL get to the five-year mark.”
“The most important message I’ve been trying to reiterate this entire time is if cancer runs in your family, have the genetic testing done,” she said.
She attempted to have the testing in 2007, but her insurance wouldn’t cover it. Her mom had melanoma four times. Her grandmother and great-grandmother both died of ovarian cancer before age 35. So when the genetic testing was introduced a decade ago, Gardner wanted it.
“I feel like this whole thing could have been prevented. But I probably wouldn’t have my daughter.”