Jen Denbo’s world stopped spinning at exactly 5:15 p.m. Jan. 16. The 32-year-old looked like she was living the perfect life. She and her husband have two healthy daughters and a nice house. All that came to a screeching halt at 5:15 p.m. Jan. 16, the moment Jen was told she had breast cancer.
Jen Denbo is not alone in her struggle with cancer. Nearly everyone in Rolla knows someone who is fighting, or has fought the disease. This is one woman’s story.
In September 2012, Jen went in for her yearly Well Woman checkup, which included a breast exam. The breast exam showed nothing.
Jen said she is religious about doing monthly self exams. During one of those exams in December, she felt a lump.
“Since we were trying to have a baby, I decided to get it checked out,” said Jen.
That choice may have saved her life.
She went in to get a mammogram and when the results popped up in front of her, she saw a big white spot come up on one of her breasts. She then had an ultrasound and needle biopsy.
The Thursday before Christmas she got a call from the doctor saying the biopsy was negative for cancer.
A few weeks later, Jen’s doctor called her to let her know he wanted her to have a lumpectomy, even though the biopsy came back negative, because he was concerned with what he saw on the mammogram. She had the lumpectomy done Jan. 10.
It’s positive for what?
Jan. 16, Jen went into the doctor’s office to have her scar from the lumpectomy checked — that’s when she got the bad news — “It’s positive,” the surgeon said.
“It’s positive for what?” asked Jen. I wasn’t even thinking cancer.”
“It’s positive for breast cancer.”
“After that moment, I don’t really remember anything else,” said Jen. “That was it. 5:15 on Jan. 16, 2013 the entire world stopped. I didn’t hear anything, I didn’t see anything… nothing.”
Her next step was the PET scan — a full body scan that would show everywhere the cancer was and if it spread.
Page 2 of 6 - “I hope this thing doesn’t light up like a Christmas tree,” Jen remembered thinking before the procedure.
Luckily the cancer hadn’t spread and was localized in her breast.
“It just hit us like a ton of bricks,” said Debbie Rigano, Jen’s mother, after hearing the lumpectomy was positive for cancer. “That day was not good.” Debbie said she was sure the lumpectomy would come back clean because she once found a lump and her biopsy came back clean.
On Jan. 24, Jen chose to have a double mastectomy.
“I was nervous,” said Jen. “I didn’t know what to expect.”
Jen spent the three days after surgery in the Intensive Care Unit at Phelps County Regional Medical Center. She said once she got home, she was just going through the motions in life — she was in denial.
She had the large mirror on her bathroom wall removed, and replaced with a much smaller mirror with doors that closed over the reflective surface.
“I didn’t want to look at myself if I didn’t have to,” said Jen. “You leave the hospital with tubes coming out of your chest. I was grossed out by it. Until recently, I wouldn’t even look down when I was getting dressed. I wouldn’t take a bath without my shirt on.”
Jen must wait at least a year before she can have reconstructive surgery, but even after that time passes, she isn’t sure she will go through with it.
“I’m just counting the surgeries in my head,” said Jen. “I’m not sure it’s worth it.”
In addition to having both of her breasts removed, Jen also has to undergo eight rounds of chemotherapy.
As of today, she has completed the first two rounds of the treatment.
Debbie Rigano, Jen’s mother, comes to Rolla from her home in St. Charles for about a week every other week to stay with Jen as she gets her treatment and help around the house for the following few days.
When Jen went in for her second chemo treatment, she was escorted back to a private room available for people who don’t want to undergo the chemotherapy process in the public room. She said the worst part about chemo was accessing the port in her chest that was installed because veins are too delicate to handle the flow of the various IV drugs needed during chemo.
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“This is number 2 of eight missy, then I better not see you again.” Jen said to her nurse, Cheryl Grubbs just before her second treatment.
After a check-up with her doctor and several other medications, Grubbs comes over to Jen with a small bag of reddish-orange liquid — the chemotherapy drugs. Jen and her mother prefer to call it “hummingbird food” because of its color.
Jen visits the Bond Clinic every other week for chemo treatments, each treatment takes about four hours.
She returns the day after the treatment for an additional shot that helps build her white blood cells back up. That shot makes her feel as if she has come down with the flu for several days.
During Jen’s second chemo treatment, she was also dealing with the additional stress of calling insurance companies and a lab to try to get a BRCA test covered.
The BRCA test helps to determine the chance of developing breast cancer. Jen is worried that if a gene mutation caused her cancer, that her two young girls could also be at risk in some point in their lives. The $4,000 test has been denied, despite a letter from her doctor saying it was medically necessary.
“Insurance is a stressor to patients,” said Carol Walter, Jen’s Nurse Navigator. “This is something they shouldn’t have to worry about when they are sick.”
A nurse navigator is a nurse who follows cancer patients through their journey, taking notes keeping them company, and answering questions patients have during their battle with cancer.
Jen said the chemotherapy is causing changes other than just having her hair fall our. “My taste buds are changing,” she said.
“My dad brought cannoli and I couldn’t taste them,” said Jen. The cannoli from her favorite St. Louis bakery were one of her favorite foods. “I was sobbing in my cannoli.”
She now eats with plastic ware because silverware leaves her with a metal taste in her mouth.
The smell of meat cooking and cleaning products are enough to make her sick.
The tug test
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At several points throughout the day, Jen reaches up to her head and tugs at her hair. Slowly but surely, it is falling out.
She already had her hair cut short so when it all does fall out, it isn’t as much of a shock.
It is falling out faster than she is comfortable with, so she decides to get her hair shaved that day.
After she got done with chemo, Jen went to lunch at Gordoz in Rolla before heading home. Within minutes of going home, she begins to feel weak, sick, and tired, so she tried to get some rest before her children, Sophie and Kaylee got home.
The next two hours brought a constant stream of activity and visitors. Women from the Presbyterian Church brought the family dinner. Kaylee and Debbie made coffee cake. A friend brought 4-year-old Sophie home from gymnastics.
The last visitor of the day was the most emotional.
Ashley Tichenor, a stylist at Benton Square and Jen’s long-time friend, arrived to shave Jen’s head.
The two eventually made their way to the bathroom, took a last photo together and got to work. Both women had tears in their eyes as Jen’s brown hair fell in clumps to the floor.
“It’s traumatic,” said Jen. “But it’s more traumatic to pull it out.”
“Isn’t getting cancer and going through chemo enough? Then you lose your hair,” she said. “I took losing my breasts easier than losing my hair.”
When the clippers were finally silent, Jen immediately put a hat on — she wasn’t prepared to see her new reflection. She didn’t look in a mirror for nearly a week.
Ashley also styled the wig she and Sophie picked out during a shopping trip together.
It takes a village
Jen said she didn’t know how she would make it through the treatments without her support system.
In addition to her mother coming to help out, her in-laws take care of the children for one day a week, doing fun activities with them that Jen has a difficult time doing.
Page 5 of 6 - Even tasks as simple as bringing 4-year-old Sophie to school have become difficult, if not impossible.
After Jen’s first chemo treatment, her doctor explained she was at a very high risk of infection, and she should avoid large crowds of people at all costs.
Now, each morning Candace Ludden, Director of the Presbyterian Pre-School, meets Jen outside the door of the school to make sure Sophie makes it safely to her class.
Every chemo day, the First Presbyterian Church brings food for the Denbo family to eat for dinner.
“There’s only one of me,” said Jen. “I’m already outnumbered with two kids and a husband. You have to rearrange your whole life. With two kids and a husband, that’s hard to do.”Jen says one of the saddest parts about fighting cancer is not being able to do everything she wants to with her children. She misses dropping them off at school, going to karate competitions and everything else that comes with being a mom.
“My mothering will overpower my cancer.”
She has been very careful with what information she shares with her children.
“Sophie knows Nana’s around more, and she knows mama’s sick.”
You can’t guard them from everything.
Staying in Rolla
Jen said that people seem to leave Rolla for treatment, but she doesn’t think that’s necessary.
“I’m doing everything here, start to finish,” she said. “People have a fear that what we have here isn’t good enough — it is good enough. We are fortunate enough I could have gone somewhere else, I didn’t.”
Jen said that one of the things she values the most about getting her treatment locally, is that people know her by her name and face, she isn't just another number.
Jen stresses how important it is to screen for cancer.
“You have to take care of yourself and your body,” she said. “If I had a lump and no insurance, I’d probably just ignore it,” said Jen. The decision to not ignore the lump could have saved her life. Now she wants to make sure no one makes that decision.
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Since her diagnosis, Jen has become an advocate, encouraging people to perform self exams, get checked, and get screenings as often as they should.
She has started a blog where she details her struggle with cancer and hopes to inspire others to get checked out. She wants to scare people into getting checked out.
“Being scared gets you to the point of making an appointment,” she said. “If I didn’t catch this, I could have been gone in a couple of months.”