Jennifer Johnson was performing a monthly breast self-exam when she discovered a lump. She was 27 years old and five months pregnant when she was diagnosed with breast cancer. "When you're pregnant, you're trying to do everything you can to protect the baby and to stay healthy," she says. "So that was the last thing I expected to deal with. I didn't have a family history of breast cancer. I had no idea that young women can get breast cancer. So it was a shock."
And, she says, it was risky, because she had to undergo a mastectomy and chemotherapy during her pregnancy.
"I really didn't want to. I was begging my doctor to wait until the baby was born, but it was aggressive enough that we needed to get started," she says. "Then in the day after my last treatment, my son was born. He was healthy."
Johnson is a breast cancer survivor, and so is her friend, Kim Carlos. She was diagnosed with the disease at age 30 while she was planning her son's second birthday party. "When I was diagnosed, the first thing I obviously thought of was my son," she says. "He was just turning 2 and I wanted to be here to see him grow up."
During their treatment journey, Carlos and Johnson formed a support group with two other friends. They shared their experiences, hopes and fears as they struggled to beat breast cancer. They met once a month at the café in Nordstrom's department store.
"That was our place to share with each other our experiences and all the unique things that we were going through that our counterparts who didn't have breast cancer maybe couldn't quite relate to," Carlos says. "It was just a very comfortable place for us to go and meet, to laugh, to cry and talk about whatever we needed to," Johnson says, adding, "often with our spouses, sometimes you don't want to tell them things you're thinking because you don't want to scare them. You want to stay positive for them."
It was at one of their monthly gatherings that they decided to put their experiences in writing, to share them with women everywhere. The result was Nordie's at Noon: The Personal Stories of Four Women Too Young for Breast Cancer.
Unfortunately, not all of the four friends survived to celebrate the book's publication a few months ago. "We lost Patti in March of 2003. And we just recently lost Jana after she battled breast cancer for eight years," Johnson says. "It's hard because they're your friends and you shared a disease with them. But we know they wanted us just to keep on educating, spreading that message in their memory."
In their book, Kim Carlos says, the women highlight the importance of keeping a positive attitude in the face of the disease. "Attitude is everything," she says. "For me, from the day I was diagnosed, I was out there trying to spread the message of awareness. Everyone said, 'Oh, you are so brave.' I went like, 'What choice do I have? To sit home and cry and feel sorry for myself? Or to try to make a difference?' In fact, I had cancer but cancer didn't have me. I may not have been in control of the cancer, but I was in control of how I lived my life, how I reacted to the cancer."
Cancer patients, Carlos says, must also be pro-active about their health. "Be your own advocate," she says. "Learn to ask the hard questions and get second opinions. Get third opinions. Do whatever it takes to feel good about your own decisions. Really be in control of your disease and of your treatment plan."
In the book, Carlos and Johnson recommend women do monthly breast exams, to detect cancer as early as possible. Janelle Hail, founder and president of the National Breast Cancer Foundation, agrees that's important for women to pay attention to any changes in their breasts and observe anything different. "And if you're concerned about it, go to the doctor immediately and get checked," she says.
A 20-year breast cancer survivor herself, Hail says women today have better chances of living with cancer, and surviving the disease. "When I had breast cancer, it wasn't spoken of," she says. "It was the disease that you were embarrassed you had. You were ashamed and perhaps even [afraid that] you might get fired from your job, because they didn't want the insurance to go up because of you. But now, breast cancer is in the spotlight and women are saying, this is a disease and maybe I can do something about it with early detection."
It was early detection that saved the lives of Nordie's at Noon co-authors Kim Carlos and Jennifer Johnson. The friends hope sharing their experiences will support and inspire breast cancer patients in their struggle against the disease, and raise awareness among young women that no one is too young for breast cancer.