If attitude is everything, then cancer survivor Jennifer Brewer has it all.
From the beginning, Brewer tried to keep a positive outlook on a very tough situation. She was shocked and scared when she was first diagnosed with cancer in both breasts at the age of 45, but she quickly made up her mind to look on the bright side.
Doctors told her she would need a double mastectomy and four months of chemotherapy. Fortunately the cancer hadn’t spread to her lymph nodes and the estimated survival rate was 86 percent.
“Nobody wants to have cancer, but I had one of the best scenarios,” she said. “I just felt like this was a journey I was going to have to take, and it was going to be okay.”
The journey began in November 2013 when she was diagnosed with stage IIA breast cancer. Brewer, who is married with teenage daughters, underwent an initial surgery in December and then a double mastectomy in January.
After recovering from surgery, she started chemotherapy with a positive attitude. Randall Pierce, MD, a board-certified medical oncologist with Northwest Georgia Oncology Centers and a member of the Tanner Cancer Care team, oversaw her chemotherapy.
“I’d look around that room and see people in much worse situations than I was in, and I felt like I really didn’t have anything to be negative about,” she said. “I actually felt like I had been blessed — that this was just a bump in the road for me, but I knew that the journey was a lot different for some of the patients around me.”
One of the toughest parts of battling cancer was worrying about how it would affect her daughters, as well as her students at Bay Springs Middle School where she taught language arts. She first told her daughters, who proved to be very resilient.
“I felt like my job as a parent is to make sure they are OK and grown up before I die,” she said. “They were too young — I couldn’t bear to leave them.”
Brewer was anxious about telling her students and worried that parents would be concerned about her inevitable absences.
“I told them, ‘I am going to be OK, but I have to go through this, and you are going on this journey with me,’” she said.
And they did.
“During the whole time the kids were awesome, and they were so protective of me,” said Brewer, who lives in Carrollton.
The first round of chemo made her hair begin to fall out. She opted for baseball caps instead of wigs. When she asked her husband to help her shave her head, she tried to keep a sense of humor.
“I told him that I never thought I’d be the first one in our marriage to be old, fat and bald,” she joked.
The next day, she was stunned when she came to school and saw that every teacher and staff member had worn a baseball cap to rally around her.
“Everyone was so supportive of me,” she said, adding that her fellow language arts teachers helped her keep up with her job. “I was so fortunate to have a great team to help me.”
Brewer managed to take only four to five days off during each monthly chemo session. She taught concepts intensively when she was in the classroom. On the days when she was out for chemo, her students worked on assignments under the supervision of other teachers.
One of the medicines they gave her during chemo caused bone pain, but Brewer kept plugging away.
“I could still grade papers from home, so I could keep up,” she said.
Everything worked out in the end thanks to all of the teachers and students working hard.
“The kids actually performed really well on their standardized tests that year, which was a big relief to me,” she said. “I had worried about that a lot because I didn’t want them to suffer in any way.”
Brewer was also pleased with the great care she received from Tanner Breast Health.
“I had the best experience with my doctors — every single one of them was fantastic and very up-to-date on the newest treatments and procedures,” she said. “Dr. Z was extremely compassionate and really understood what I was going through.”
Dr. Raul Zunzunegui, a Susan G. Komen Fellowship-trained breast specialist who is board certified in surgery, was her breast surgeon.
“Communication between a doctor and patient is an important part of the patient’s experience, especially during a breast cancer diagnosis,” Dr. Zunzunegui said.
Reconstruction was also key to her recovery.
“Breast cancer strips you of your femininity — you lose your hair and you lose your breasts,” she said. “It’s very difficult.”
Stephen Kahler, MD, a board-certified plastic surgeon with West Georgia Center for Plastic Surgery, performed her breast reconstruction. Brewer said he was a positive influence from the beginning, reminding her that they were going to help her feel good again.
“Breast reconstruction can be a life-changing step toward helping women feel like themselves again — physically and emotionally,” said Dr. Kahler.
Brewer had heard that Dr. Kahler was known as a perfectionist.
“I found out in the best way that he really is a perfectionist,” she said. “He was very meticulous because he wanted me to be happy.”
In addition to the mastectomy, she had two different breast reconstruction surgeries. She always tried to look on the bright side.
“I told myself, ‘I’m 45 years old, so I could probably use a little upkeep,’” she joked.