She says breast cancer was like ‘a normal sickness’

Jennifer Cook’s breast cancer episode has earned her Pied Piper status.

“I can’t believe how many (friends and associates) have come to me and said they’re getting their mammograms, now, ‘because of what I’ve learned from you,’” said Cook, 43, of St. Louis.

Cook recently finished her last round of radiation therapy for stage 2 breast cancer discovered in July. After surgery in August, she was back in church a couple of weeks later.

The ordeal wasn’t easy, but it wasn’t so difficult as it used to be, she said.

She had her annual mammogram in July. It indicated tumors in her left breast.

Her mother and aunt had breast cancer, so with that family risk, she had been having checkups every year for about five years, she said.

This year, she put it off for about three months. The widespread cancer already at stage 2 surprised her a bit, but she took it in stride, she said. With her family history, it wasn’t unexpected.

Dr. Julie Margenthaler, Cook’s surgeon, said that in younger women — the 40-year-old range — small tumors may be difficult to see in a mammogram, a specialized imaging machine that picks up cancer by measuring contrasts in tissues. “It can be like finding a snowball in a snowstorm,” Margenthaler said.

After some long discussions about her condition, Cook weighed the options, she said. She decided on a double mastectomy to remove the worry for the rest of her life.

“I had too many friends and friends of friends, who’d had similar situations,” she said. “I didn’t want that looming over me. I just thought as a woman, I wanted to eliminate even possibility.”

Margenthaler said Cook’s cancer was common. How women react emotionally and physically, “… is very individual,” she said. Treatment can be a few weeks or up to a year depending on a lot of elements, she said.

For Cook, “It was like this was a normal sickness; we’ll take care of it,” she said. “It wasn’t easy, but there was no feeling like this was a death sentence.”

This wasn’t her mother’s breast cancer episode, she said. Her mother wrestled with physical and emotional problems with her breast cancer decades ago.

“She has never been happy with the results of her treatment,” Cook said.

Cook said she didn’t face those problems.

What helped was she had the cancer surgery and reconstructive surgery at the same time, she said. “I never had time to have the fear; with doing it all at the same time I’d never even notice too much of a difference.”

Still, she said, she would have had the cancer surgery even if reconstruction hadn’t been an option.

The cancer also wasn’t scary because, “so much is out there, so many people are out there recovering or going through it, tackling it day by day; you don’t really have a choice,” she said.