The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

October 6, 2013

The Good Fight: Breast cancer survivor counts her blessings

By Lisa Shrewsberry
Lifestyles Editor

— “We cannot afford to forget any experience, not even the most painful.”

— Dag Hammarskjold



For once in her life, Gina Jarrell was speechless. The psychotherapist often called on for the most difficult kinds of court cases, those involving child sexual abuse and trauma, is that rare type of personality who finds the pot of gold at the end of the faintest rainbow. She is known for having something good to say about how things will turn, even in the direst situations.

But when her doctor told her that the biopsy of a lump in her breast came back as Stage 3 triple negative invasive ductal carcinoma, you could have heard a pin drop.

Triple negative breast cancer is the most deadly form of the disease, typically affecting young African American women.

It is also the least researched cancer subtype, confounding and swift. Where breast cancers are typically fueled by receptors or connections (estrogen receptors, progesterone receptors and human epidermal growth factor or HER2 receptors) Jarrell’s tumor could not be treated by receptor-targeted therapies.

To her shock, inside of two months what began as a knot the size of a pencil eraser had grown similar in proportion to a chicken egg. In light of the diagnosis, she would need to call on the same strength she always managed on behalf of her clients — this time to help herself.

“When I first felt it, it was extremely painful. People had told me ‘If it’s painful, it’s just a cyst. That was not true,” explains Jarrell.

She sits telling her story behind six Relay for Life medals, one for each year since and including that of her diagnosis. The team she organized last year to raise $625, she lightheartedly deemed the “booby traps.” Jarrell’s sense of humor is, as she describes it, the best of what she inherited.

The gravity of a diagnosis she unwittingly delayed getting was compounded by a family propensity for cancer.

“My mother’s family members have all had cancer … she and my grandmother died of cancer.”

Her aunts and uncles on her mother’s side had also fallen victim to cancer. A first cousin was diagnosed with the same type as Jarrell, at around the same time. The cousin, Rachel Bartram, underwent surgery, chemotherapy and radiation, but her cancer came back. She died at age 45.

“There were four cases of my subtype in West Virginia at the time; one was me and one was my cousin. My doctor had said during my treatment if it came back, my life expectancy would be three months. I saw my cousin in August 2010 at a family reunion. By Thanksgiving 2010, the cancer was back. We buried her in January 2011 — that’s how deadly this is.”

Jarrell’s optimism in spite of the dour hand dealt her is inspiring, but her cousin’s experience and her doctor’s words tempered the positive with a harsh reality: “If it comes back, it will kill me.”

Times most would elect to forget, Jarrell finds comfort in remembering.

The single mother of two sons recalls not having the strength during chemotherapy to see them off to school in the mornings.

“I would still get up with them. I would make their lunch and feed them breakfast and I would be exhausted and lay back down. They would come in and pat me on the head and I would hear them leaving.”

Her children had to grow up quickly during her recovery, she says.

“They were very worried about me. Going through this has led them to be much more mature and they developed a deep spiritual appreciation for God.”

Jarrell remembers driving herself like clockwork to Charleston first thing every morning, 42 times total, for radiation before she was officially declared “in remission” Dec. 4, 2009.

“The worst part was I couldn’t work with children. My immune system was rock bottom. I would look out of the window of my room and see the sunshine, knowing I didn’t have the strength to get up out of bed.”

Today, Jarrell celebrates her return to work and life. She respects her body by balancing rest and exercise.

“I get eight hours of sleep each night, just like my parents taught.”

She also does kickboxing, cross-training and strength training, working out five to six days per week, with an added focus on diet, eating foods known to be cancer fighters, like blueberries and broccoli.

“I try to eat a plant-based diet like my oncologist suggested. Cancer feeds on sugar and hides in fat.”

Jarrell’s prognosis has an oddly specific and ironic silver lining.

“No one in (documented) medical history who makes it to the seven-year mark with my type of cancer has ever gotten it again.”

Three-and-a-half years post-treatment, Jarrell refuses to put her life on hold until the benchmark. She has chosen to live, starting now.

“Every year I put behind me is closer to being there ... and then I’ll get run over by a train,” she jokes, evidence of perhaps the greatest miracle of all, maintaining her sense of humor on the backside of her darkest hour.

“I want to get to the three-and-a-half more years, but anything can kill you. I have the philosophy of living for today, of spending time with my kids, taking vacations with them, doing extra things with them. If I am faced with a decision now, I know I am not guaranteed another day, and I think ‘Will I regret NOT doing this?’ Then, I go for it.

“This is not a dress rehearsal. You don’t get another chance.”

Another positive Jarrell has found in the face of her triple negative threat is a strong belief in a higher power, a connection to someone unseen, yet in control of it all.

“I give this all to God. I’m not a Bible thumper or anything like that, but He was my motivation, my inspiration and my strength.”

Not one to assume she has all the answers, yet now in a position to talk about it, Jarrell has a few things to say to women regarding breast cancer.

“Women have to pay attention to their breasts. Don’t be afraid to touch them! Do your regular self-exams. If breast cancer is detected earlier, it is much easier to treat.”

Also, she says, “Know your body, be aware of it and connected to it. If you are easily fatigued, or your blood pressure is spiking and dropping, or if you are experiencing anything off the wall, it could be a warning sign.”

— E-mail: lshrewsberry@register-herald.com