Many of us have dreaded the phone call, as we awaited test results, but for Jennifer Valcourt Steakelum it was a call that would redirect life and challenge her to become a cancer warrior. She used courage and humor as her superpowers and kicked cancer in the ass!
Women are constantly being told the importance of self-breast exams, is it something you did on a regular basis?
No, I didn’t! I went to all my mammogram appointments though. Four years prior to getting diagnosed one of my best friends was diagnosed. She felt a small lump completely by chance after running a marathon. When she went in to have it checked, it did NOT show on the mammogram. I have another friend who went for her annual mammogram and something showed up. After a biopsy, it was determined she did have breast cancer, yet the doctor, nurse or her could not FEEL it.
My point is breast exams are so important, but so are mammograms.
When was a lump first discovered?
It was August 6th, 2019. I was sitting in my boss’s office just waiting for him to finish a phone call. It was a hot day so I was wearing a sleeveless top. I had my elbow on my seat behind me. Being the weirdo that I am, I was just sitting there digging in my armpit with my thumb when I felt something the size of a grape. I immediately checked my other armpit to see if this was just a normal part of my anatomy that I never knew about. No such luck, that side had nothing. I made all the girls in the office feel it to make sure I wasn’t imagining it.
After test results were confirmed, how did you cope that you had the “BIG C”? And how did you break the devastating news to your family?
Just 8 days after I found the lump I got the call while I was at work. I listened and took notes about all my upcoming appointments. As soon as I hung up, I broke down. My first thought was, “How am I going to tell my mother?” I drove the 45 minutes home. My husband was in the living room; I walked in and said, “Whelp, I have cancer.” Next I went up to my 20 year old son’s room and said, “So, you know I have been going to a lot of appointments… well, I have breast cancer.” He immediately hugged me and told me everything was going to be ok. I said, “All I had to do to get a hug from you was get cancer?”
Humor – that’s how I cope.
Once I had all the information on what stage I was and what was to come, I went to see my mom. I was just chatting about random things and then I said, “So….I have breast cancer.” I went right into telling her about the treatment plan and told her everything was going to be okay. It was fine, it went perfectly. Later that day I called my brother and sister and told them.
In life, we all know the importance of a strong support system, who made a difference along your cancer journey?
Where do I start? My boss, from day one offered up anything I needed - from unlimited time off to money for things that my insurance might not cover. This took a huge load off of my shoulders! I didn’t have to stress about those things.
I have 3 friends; we’ve been friends for almost 40 years, who were there pretty much every single step of the way - from concocting chemo tea to offering to call into work to bring me to appointments. One of the three, I actually mentioned earlier. She had breast cancer four years before me; she was my go to girl for all things cancer as well as my other friend who was STILL going through treatment. My family of course, were always offering up anything I needed. I have two cousins that checked in on me almost every day. They offered to make dinners for me and to just come over to visit or go for a walk. Friends would text or call to see how I was doing. Two friends sent me cards every week to make me smile. Another friend would snapchat silly stuff back and forth with me until I was laughing so hard my sides would hurt.
My husband was right beside me for every single appointment. He even managed to tell me I was beautiful every day, even after all my hair was gone.
I have to say I’m pretty blessed.
As part of your cancer treatment plan, a double mastectomy was scheduled, what emotions did you feel the day before?
That was the last day that Thelma and Louise would be a part of my body. While folding laundry, I decided to organize one of my drawers. I laid out all of my pretty bras and we (me, Thelma and Louise) reminisced about all of the good times we've had.
We laughed remembering the day the black one suddenly unhooked out of nowhere at work. We remembered how pretty we felt in the blue one with the white flowers. We smiled remembering the times that Kris would struggle unclasping them even after 25 years.
After the drawer was organized and everything was put away I decided that Thelma and Louise needed a last hoorah.
Leaving all bras behind, we climbed into the car. I opened the moon roof to let the sunshine in and went in search of a bumpy road. I wanted them to feel alive one last time.
The girls danced happily, blissfully unaware of what their fate was to be the next day.
When I returned home, I gathered together everything I needed to bring to their final destination. I just hope they know they were loved. I hope they know that they did their job and they did it well. Rest easy Thelma, rest easy Louise...you will never be forgotten. - Jennifer Valcourt Steakelum
What advice would you give anyone needing a double mastectomy, prior and after surgery? Tell us about the lowest point during your treatment and what mentally kept you pushing through it?
Prior to surgery, get as mentally prepared as you can. Say goodbye to the girls, thank them for all they have done. Heck, throw them a going away party!
Before surgery, you will need to decide what you want to do after. Some women choose implants, some choose to go flat. It is a very personal decision so it may take some time to decide.
Prep your house! Put everything you need within reach. You won’t be able to lift your arms. Prepare some freezer meals that can be just thrown into the oven. Get some button up tops! You won’t be able to pull anything over your head. Rent or borrow a recliner if you don’t have one. You don’t realize how much you use your upper body and arms to just sit up. Plus, it is much easier to sleep in a recliner. Invest in a shower head that can be hand held. You won’t be allowed to fully shower until all the drains are removed.
After surgery you need to learn two things…patience and asking for help. You will NEED help and I promise you that you have friends and family wanting to help so badly. When they offer – ACCEPT! Finally, as cheesy as it sounds… STAY POSITIVE!
Please consider donating to Susan G. Komen in support of finding a cure for breast cancer.
I remember my lowest point very clearly. I had been proud of the fact that I only cried the day I received the call and that every time after that when my eyes would fill up I would whisper to myself, "Suck it up, buttercup" to stop the tears from falling. I didn't want anyone to see me cry. I didn't want anyone to think that I needed anything, from anyone. I also had a daily fight in my head telling myself, "How dare you not be grateful! Other people have a fight much harder than yours!" The problem with doing that is that every time I whispered those words and swallowed down those feelings a crack formed and one day I just broke. I was exhausted, I was uncomfortable, and I felt ugly. I felt that everything that made me feel feminine was taken from me.
I realized that trying to live that way wasn't fair. It wasn't fair to anyone else who would have to through this, to make them think that this process is easy. It wasn't fair to my family. I was acting as if everything was fine and keeping it all to myself. The problem with doing that is everyone WILL think your fine which only leads to resentment. How could anyone know if I was having a bad day if I always acted like everything was unicorns and rainbows? Let people in! You also need to realize that breaking down once in a while doesn’t make you weak, it makes you human.
I definitely got through it all with humor and as funny as it sounds - science. After every appointment where I received new information I researched what it was all about. I needed to see and understand what would be happening to my body. It sounds weird but, there’s a lot of interesting stuff that goes down. I even kept a blog explaining my whole journey, which helped me cope quite a bit.
Your treatment plan was in full force during a pandemic, can you explain the importance of wearing a mask?
I think people still don’t understand that by YOU wearing a mask, you are protecting other people. COVID-19 can be spread by people who do not have symptoms and do not know that they are infected and you don’t know what people around you are going through. Anyone at any point can have a compromised immune system. I wear MY mask to protect YOU in case I have the virus without symptoms. Show me the same courtesy!
How has going through all this changed your outlook on everyday life?
I try not to sweat the small stuff and I try to convince others to do the same. In the grand scheme of things small issues and inconveniences will mean nothing down the road. I have also been working on not being so hard on myself.
On July 16th, 2020 what did it feel like ringing the bell, after your last radiation treatment?
I rang the bell when I finished chemo in January, but I knew I wasn’t completely done. This time, it was much more emotional. I had mixed emotions. I was excited, relieved, happy – but I also had anxiety because as I walked out I thought, “Well, now what?”
What song empowers you to be the badass you are, a song to kick cancer in the ass? And bring out the “Wolverine” in you!
“Lose Yourself” by Eminem has always been my go to pump up song!
“Just Like Fire” by my girl PiNK and Lady Gaga’s “Edge of Glory” are two of the other ones.
What are the next steps on your journey?
Reconstruction is next. In January or February I will be having Diep Flap surgery. It uses a flap of complete tissue - blood vessels, skin and fat - from my own body. It is a complicated surgery that lasts 10-12 hours long, but in the end I won’t have implants and they will have a more natural feel and appearance.
What would you say to any woman, who just received a cancer diagnosis?
Don’t panic! I like to say, “This isn’t our grandparent’s cancer”. A long time ago if you heard the word cancer, you thought it was a death sentence. They have made huge strides in treatments! It just isn’t like that anymore. Take notes at all your appointments. Teach yourself about what is happening to your body. Trust your gut, if you aren’t comfortable with a specific doctor or surgeon, get another opinion. You need to trust everyone that will be involved.