With no family history or genetic mutation, Jen Hodson was 29 years old when she found a lump in her breast during a self-exam. When she heard the words, "You have breast cancer," she recalls feeling as though she "was immediately in a tunnel, and there was no way out." More than anything, she just wanted to know if she could survive. Due to her cancer being HER2+, Jen opted for what’s considered standard protocol – freezing eggs, port placement and chemotherapy plus targeted therapy, followed by a bilateral mastectomy and implant reconstruction. Now, a two-plus-year survivor with no evidence of disease, Jen focuses on hope and loves inspiring others who have been newly diagnosed. Her honest and candid feed on Instagram is one of the things we love most about her, and we’re honored to have her as part of our Everviolet family! To learn more about how Jen was able to work through treatment, her experience with a mind-body disconnect, the mantra she lives by to this day and more, check out our latest In Her Words below.
Name: Jen Hodson
Location: Baltimore, MD
Current Health Status: NED as of 5/17/17
Tell us a little bit about yourself.
Born and raised in Rochester, NY, I moved to London for university and lived there for almost a decade. In 2014, I moved back to the US and settled in Baltimore, MD, where I work at a tech startup called SpotHero. I’m the youngest of three children, the aunt to two wonderful humans, and I run marathons (very slowly). I also really enjoy reading and I'm currently playing the dreaded online dating game.
When were you diagnosed with breast cancer?
I was diagnosed with Stage 2A, grade 3, ER/PR/HER2+ breast cancer in November 2016 at the age of 29. I noticed a lump during a self-exam and immediately called my Primary Care Physician. He referred me to an ultrasound, and from there they took a biopsy of both my lymph nodes and the lump. The lymph nodes were negative, but the lump was malignant. I saw a genetic counselor who determined there were no genetic mutations known to have caused my cancer. I did not have a family history.
What were your first thoughts when you were diagnosed?
I felt like I was immediately in a tunnel, and there was no way out. The doctor was spouting all this medical jargon at me, and I knew it was important to listen, but at the same time, I just shut completely down. I didn’t want to know the details, I just wanted to know if I could survive.
How did your friends and family take the news?
My family has had our fair share of trauma, so I think instinctively, we tend to hear bad news and process it with a level head, letting the emotions take over at a later date. My parents are deaf, and so I had to type out a message to my dad because I wanted him to approach my mom about it. I wasn’t there for their reactions, but I know it was extremely hard for them. Nevertheless, they immediately wanted to know the next steps and how they could help. The conversation with my middle brother, Jon, was the hardest – I could hear his voice cracking as the sadness took over him. When I told him, we both lost it a bit, especially because I wasn’t sure if I could have kids in the future. I then drafted a text in my phone notes and copy/pasted to everyone I wanted to tell – I can’t remember their reactions specifically, only that I just needed them to know.
Describe your treatment and how you arrived at that course of action.
Because my cancer was HER2+, my treatment course was pretty well-established. I saw no reason to deviate from standard protocol which meant eggs needed to be harvested (optional), a port placed in my chest, 6 rounds of “big chemo” mixed with targeted therapy (Carboplatin, Taxotere, Herceptin and Perjeta) followed by 12 more rounds of targeted therapy. After my 6 rounds of big chemo, I underwent a bilateral mastectomy with implant reconstruction a few months later. In May 2017, I was told I had a complete pathological response to treatment, and have been in remission ever since.
Were you able to work through treatment?
Yes, that’s actually the first question I asked my breast surgeon, and I’m so glad I did. Work was a welcomed distraction from the cancer day-to-day. I was able to work from home a lot and also take time off for surgeries. I will always be grateful for having such a support system at my place of work.
Where and how have you found the best care?
I am very fortunate that I really love my medical care team at Mercy in Baltimore. My PCP is at Mercy, and he is the one who referred me to my first ultrasound. From there, I was introduced to my breast surgeon, my oncologist and my plastic surgeon. All of these people have given me sound advice, and I have never doubted their intentions or methods. I also know that if I ever did, they would gladly encourage me to get a second opinion. On the day after my bilateral mastectomy, my PCP actually came to my room to check on me – it really meant the world to me.
Have you received any additional support or alternative therapies?
One of my friends set up a GoFundMe which really helped me tackle unexpected medical costs, such as my egg harvesting (which was not covered by insurance at the time). They also set up a Meal Train which took the pressure off of organizing food and cooking during those tumultuous chemo weeks. And another friend even held a benefit at a local bar which was one of the most fun nights I’ve ever had (and I was knee-deep in chemo!).
What or who have been your biggest supports? Who makes up your cancer tribe?
I am extremely blessed that I have the best network of friends and family. From start to finish, they all showed up and stayed there. My family drove down from Rochester, NY several times. I always had someone with me during chemo, and my friends who live abroad put together an amazing video of encouragement. I don’t know how I got so lucky to have met the right people in life, but I definitely have. Specifically, I’d have to say my friend Jess and my ex (still a friend!), Wes -- they were crucial each and every day.
What has been one of the most challenging aspects of the experience for you?
I think not recognizing myself was the hardest part. Not only was my body changing every day, but my mind was as well. The limitations implemented during treatment really caused a disconnect in my mind. I would look in the mirror and tell myself I just had to get through it, knowing that I didn’t know who was staring back at me anymore. That compartmentalization really impacted me after treatment ended.
What is one thing you wish you knew before you were diagnosed?
I wish I had prepared myself and my care team that chemo gets harder as time goes on, not easier. A lot of people assumed I was getting used to it or becoming more able to handle it, but in reality, it was breaking me down more and more each time. I found it hard to explain that part to people. Compassion fatigue can be very real.
Is there a particular mantra or inspiration that helps you?
“One foot in front of the other.” After my initial ultrasound and biopsy, the radiologist sent me to get changed and the took a second to say that to me. She told me that’s all I needed to do -- get to each appointment, each test, and I would move forward. I now say it every day.
If you could offer a woman, who has been newly diagnosed, some words of wisdom for her journey, what would you tell her?
Every feeling you have during this time is valid – even the dark and angry ones. Feel them, write about them, accept them. We tend to comfort others when we have to tell them about our diagnosis. Allow yourself time to break down – it’s completely ok.
What are you most proud of in your cancer journey?
Inspiring others who have been newly diagnosed. When I got my news, the first thing I did was go home and search #breastcancer on Instagram (weird, I know!). As soon as I saw young women living such happy and fulfilling lives, I realized that I could be that woman too. In turn, I started sharing on my own account, and everyday women reach out to me with their stories. I am so proud of the community on social media and that I get to be an active part of it. Not only about cancer, but also about each other's lives.
How has breast cancer affected your outlook on life? On illness?
Sorry to be crass, but breast cancer made my “fuck it” bucket quite large. I speak up a lot more, I don’t waste time, I don’t do things that I don’t want to. I’ve stopped trying to be something I’m not (whether its how people view me or imagining how I’m supposed to be a model). Instead, I just go “fuck it,” and I embrace the moment as it is, doing what I want, living life how I want.
Regarding illness, cancer taught me that not every illness can be seen. Patience needs to extend beyond bald heads and surgical recoveries, and we are more than what’s written in our charts.
How have you changed?
I’m reaching for those dreams more than I ever did before – I bought my first home, I ran my first marathon (NYC 2018, one year after finishing treatment). I’m dating and hoping to find the love of my life. I’m just hoping, generally, about so much more than I ever did. Oh, and I went up a cup size too!