How three fingers helped save my life

Jerri Huntt’s self-breast exam that changed everything

Like many women, Jerri Huntt was skeptical. She didn’t expect examining her own breasts for lumps would help her. “I’m never going to find a lump even if have one,” she thought.

But unlike many women, Huntt was working for a physician. A social worker for women’s oncology at Watson Clinic Women’s Center in Lakeland, Huntt worked for Dr. Elisabeth Dupont, a general surgeon who specializes in breast surgery.

More than just ‘on the job’ training

Dr. Dupont espouses self-breast exams— and regularly reminds her staff members to do them. So Huntt did them, even though she believed it was a waste of time. In the end, Huntt concludes, “Dr. Dupont was right.”

In October 2009, Huntt was enroute to Arkansas with her husband, Phillip, when she found a lump while performing her monthly exam in the shower. “When I found that lump, it shocked me,” recalls Huntt, a 46-year-old who has been cancer free for four years.

It was hard to believe. In late May— less than five months before that fateful day— her mammogram showed no signs of cancer. Fast-forward to October, and an ultrasound confirmed a fast-growing tumor the size of a quarter. After testing, Dr. Dupont called Huntt at home to break the news. It was 9 p.m. when Huntt picked up the phone to hear that her disease was a “very aggressive kind” of cancer called a triple negative, recalls Huntt. “The standard treatment for that is you receive chemo [chemotherapy] first,” Huntt explains. “You have to stop the tumor from growing.”

What her work prepared her for

Huntt was no stranger to chemotherapy. In her job as a social worker, she had been counseling women suffering with breast cancer and running support groups at the Women’s Center. Her biggest concern was nausea.

Huntt’s situation was complicated, however. She’d had melanoma, a skin cancer, a year before. They had to be sure the melanoma had not spread. A second biopsy was ordered, and fortunately, it confirmed the original diagnosis. “It could have been a worse situation. I would have been in a lot more danger,” she says.

Chemotherapy started the Monday after Thanksgiving. “It really wasn’t as horrible as I thought it was going to be,” she recalls. An anti-nausea drug enabled her to endure chemo without experiencing hardly any nausea.

Her treatments were every two weeks. Although she took off the third day after a chemo treatment, she was able to continue working. “This is a desk job. It’s not strenuous,” she explains. “I was able to function. I was still able to do my job.”

Her hair, however, fell out after the first treatment. “That was a little traumatic. I won’t lie about that,” she acknowledges. Huntt rotated between blond and red wigs. “Those wigs were actually very flattering,” she says. “Before it was done, I bought a dark auburn.” But the wigs are not ideal during the summertime in Florida. “I was glad it was during our cooler months that I had to wear the wigs,” she admits. “You sweat under the wigs. It’s hotter than any hat you’ll wear.”

After six chemotherapy treatments, Huntt underwent preliminary surgery. They found the chemo had done its job; the tumor was the size of a speck of pepper. She completed her 10th chemotherapy treatment in April and underwent surgery to remove both breasts at the end of May. Her advisors had all recommended removal of the left breast, but left it up to her whether to remove the right one as well.

“I made the decision,” she says. “I don’t regret doing it. For some women, that would be like jumping off a cliff. Everybody has to make their own decision.” The surgery is less invasive than the radical mastectomies of the 1970s. “We have come a long way,” she says.

These days there are no visible scars. Some procedures spare the nipple; others reconstruct it and use a tattoo to match the original. “Most women now can have a lumpectomy… As long as those margins are clear, that means that they got it,” she says.

Life (and work) after surviving cancer

Women have a one in eight chance of developing breast cancer, according to the American Cancer Society (ACS), and a one in 37 chance of dying because of it. Huntt is one of a growing number of survivors. Breast cancer death rates dropped 34 percent between 1990 and 2010, the ACS reports in Breast Cancer Facts and Figures 2013-2014. The increase was greater for women under 50.

About three or four weeks after the last chemotherapy treatment, Huntt’s hair started to grow again. At first, her normally ash blond hair looked battleship gray. “As it was growing out it was getting more and more blond,” she recalls. “It was really really curly and really soft. We called it rabbit fur.”

Less than a year after her struggle began, Huntt was asked to speak at the ACS’s Making strides against Breast Cancer Memorial Walk Kickoff. There, she took off her wig in front of the audience. “I am cancer free. I plan to stay that way,” she recalls telling them. “I’m kind of tired of this thing.”

Although she had defeated cancer, the emotional battle continued. One year after she was declared cancer free, fear was heightened. “Until you get another year, it’s kind of there,” she admits.

At four years, her confidence is greater, says Huntt, who found her bout with cancer has made her better in her job at the Women’s Center. “Now when they say something to me, I know exactly what they mean,” she explains. “I’ve been through that moment.”

She’s endured all the emotional states, from being shocked and numb, to following the doctor’s instructions one day at a time, to that day of victory when you are cancer free— only to encounter the fear that it will return. “I’m not immune even though I’m a counselor,” she acknowledges. “The more time that passes that you’re cancer free, the calmer you are. I can honestly say, at the four-year mark, I’m much better.”


portrait by PEZZIMENTI

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