Jenny Cheff was just 34 when she found out she had Stage 3 invasive ductile breast cancer.
A wife, a mother of two little girls, a business owner and an avid outdoorswoman, the news was life-altering. Over the next several months, Cheff endured surgeries, chemo and the side-effects that go with trying to get poison out of your body with, well, basically poison.
Chemotherapy is brutal. Hair loss. Fingernail loss. Weight loss. Energy loss.
Through her Facebook page, Cheff took friends —and friends of friends who she didn’t even know — down the road with her. She openly shared her pain, her struggles, her frustrations, and her joy.
And because of it, Cheff has gained the respect and admiration of friends and strangers alike.
With just one chemo session left, Cheff is no longer content to get herself through the day. Her desire is to help others get through their days. And to that end, “Montana Tough” was forged.
Recently trademarked by Cheff, Montana Tough (https://www.montanatough.org) is a fundraiser for local women that have or had breast cancer. It is funded by the proceeds of decal and shirt sales available at her Atomic Sign & Design shop.
All proceeds stay in the community, and secondly, in Montana.
“Because us Montana Women are strong!” said Cheff.
Also joining the fundraising efforts this month is Beartooth Beanery owner Heather Meier. For the remaining three Fridays in October, Beartooth Beanery will donate 20 percent of its daily sales to Montana Tough, as well as using the logo and pink straws and lids to help raise breast cancer awareness. Last Friday brought in $125 for Montana Tough as well as $200 in tips.
Also combining forces with Montana Tough this month is the Laura Hanson Memorial Fund. That partnership is the story of two sisters — Jenny Cheff and her sister, Laura, who was killed in a car accident in 2002. The girls’ parents, Ric and Carol Hanson, along with the Full Moon Car Club, raise money every year to give to someone in need. Since 2003, the Hansons and the club have given $21,000 to local families. This year, the recipient is Holly Williams, who was diagnosed just last month.
BECAUSE SHE CAN
Since her diagnoses in October of 2016, Cheff says there have been far too many people she knows diagnosed also in the last year. More than she can count on one hand and that’s just in Stillwater County.
“I was overwhelmed by our loving community, and now it’s time for me to give back,” said Cheff.
Her husband, Martin, has been her rock, as well as her parents and extended family.
“And the town of Columbus! Holy Moly! I feel the love,” said Cheff.
NATIONAL BREAST CANCER AWARENESS MONTH
With one in every eight women being diagnosed with breast cancer, awareness is more important than ever. Advances in fighting the disease are being made, with a 38 percent decrease in breast cancer mortality reported in the United States from 1989 to 2014, according to the Susan G. Komen organization.
Other than skin cancer, breast cancer is the most common cancer among American women, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). And there are ways to reduce the risk of developing the disease. Some of those steps include maintaining a healthy weight, exercising at least four hours a week, getting enough sleep, limiting alcohol drinks to one a day and not smoking.
MAMMOGRAPHY SERVICES IN STILLWATER COUNTY
The Stillwater Billings Clinic offers digital mammography services every Tuesday and Thursday.
Digital mammography is the preferred technology to detect breast cancer. Digital images are easily stored and transferred electronically and are more convenient and reliable.
Jenny Cheff has very little cancer in her family history and genetic testing revealed nothing.
“This was purely bad luck, my genetic counselor said,” said Cheff.
She tells her story the best herself. It is as follows:
“To start, I am not calling this my cancer story. I am calling it a chapter of my life. I have many, many chapters in my story. Some good – some bad. This one just happens to be about the bad. But from the bad, comes good.
I was diagnosed with Stage 3, invasive, ductile breast cancer three days after my youngest daughter’s third birthday. It was on a Friday. I remember this, because the doctor that called to deliver the news (which was probably not the highlight of his day) delivered it with the most ‘meh’ attitude. He even sounded a bit….chipper maybe? So much that I had to call back on speaker phone so that my husband could hear. I figured anyone who delivered the ‘cancer news’ couldn’t sound that nonchalant about it. And he had the kahunas to tell me that a nurse navigator would be calling me either later today…. OR MONDAY. So let’s sit and stew about it over the weekend. ‘Hi, you have cancer. We’ll talk about it more next week. Good bye.’ Talk about nerve wracking!
Actually I should back this up a little. It was probably mid September, 2016, that I noticed a lump in the top side of my left breast. I was skeptical. Probably nothing. I was only 34. I eventually stewed about it enough that I told my husband. ‘Get an appointment’ he said. So a couple weeks later I called. I hadn’t had a pap smear for three years, so I thought it was time. My regular OB/GYN was months out. I had never had a man for a ‘lady doctor’ before. So I wasn’t going to schedule. Something told me to just get it over and done. They had a new guy that had an available appointment in two weeks. Book it.
New doctor felt it, said it was probably nothing. Scheduled me an ultra sound for a couple days later. He also had to schedule me a mammogram, as they wouldn’t do just the one. So we went home and celebrated Miss Maddison’s birthday! Back to Billings we went the next day. Mind you, this is a 90 mile round trip each time). My first mammogram experience was, well, not super pleasant – but we’ll save that story for a different day! My ultra sound technician was nice, but not very talkative. I am pretty sure that she knew what she was looking at, but didn’t want to say. I remember her asking if I had a few minutes, she was going to have a biopsy authorized. We knew it was something serious. Two days later is when the doctor called.
After that it was a blur. I met with all sorts of doctors, surgeons, nurses, counselors and more. I had my chemo port put in Nov. 8 with chemo the following Tuesday. This was right in the middle of everything. Hunting season, school, my work, the holidays….I didn’t have time for this. So I didn’t let it take any more of my time than necessary. When I shot my very first bull elk – EVER – it was the day after I had surgery to have my port placed. My family was worried that I was hurt from the rifle, but it was tears of joy! My best friend and I went and did a boudoir photo shoot. And none too soon – my hair started falling out in clumps that day. The photographer even edited out my port in some of my photos!
Thanksgiving and Christmas came and went. It worked out with chemo that I didn’t have much of an appetite anyways, so no extra holiday weight. Ha!
March was my last ‘bad chemo.’ I had a cocktail of four drugs that I got every three weeks. They were awful. A minimum of eight hours in the infusion center each time. They took my appetite, most of my eye lashes, my hair, my fingernails, my energy, and more. I just also lost most of my eyebrows (four months later) and my toenails are dying. Goes to show you how long that stuff stays in your system. Chemo also put me into menopause. The hot flashes are ridiculous! Especially in the summer heat. It’s more often than not that I wake up in a pool of sweat. Now I am on a dose of Herceptin every three weeks until October of this year. And I am on Anastrozole for at least five years (pill form).
My mastectomy was scheduled for April 4. I was terrified. I have had boobs my whole life (well, since 4th grade). I had never had a major surgery. I had to spend the night in the hospital. My kids were super happy to be having a sleepover at Gramma’s though. Surgery was fast, as I was asleep – and when I woke up I found out that I also had 20 lymph nodes removed. I was terrified to see the flaps of skin where my boobs used to be. I was considering just keeping the bandage on for a few weeks, but my surgeon was there promptly the next morning to remove it. It was pretty sad looking. Not only did I have two super-glued skin flaps, I had three drain tubes running out of my body. If you have never had drains, you are lucky! They are horrible. I couldn’t stand to empty my own, so my mom and husband had to do it. They have a couple of stitches to keep them in your body, and you will catch them on everything. No matter how hard you try, you can not hide them under your clothes. This makes it pretty hard to go anywhere without people looking at you funny. But, I did.
That next Saturday, my husband walked his first 5K with me. It wasn’t about us getting out, it was in memory of an 18-year-old girl that died from cancer. The profits raised go to children battling cancer. How could I say no?
I was scheduled for radiation about a month after surgery. This was going to be five days a week, for six weeks. Drive 90-plus miles a day….450 miles a week….2,700 miles total just for radiation. But – because my cancer reacted to the chemo the way it did, I was selected to participate in a medical study. I was randomized for, drum roll, no radiation! I almost cried harder when I got this news than when I got my diagnosis. This meant I could speed everything else along!
July 14 was the day. I was going direct to implants, as my original surgeon had saved enough skin that I wouldn’t have to have expanders. I also opted to have a full hysterectomy (ovaries included) as my maternal grandmother had Fallopian tube cancer in the 1990s and that is now considered a precursor to ovarian cancer. And, with my cancer being hormone receptive, my body won’t be making much estrogen or progesterone anymore. Lucky for me, the plastic surgeon and the OB/GYN doctor could do my surgeries on the same morning! Like a 2-for-1 special. Ha! I also laughed when my pre-surgery nurse said that I would feel like a Mack truck ran me over following surgery, but she was right! I took a couple days off from work. But it’s hard to do too many when you own your own business. My husband has a great job with great benefits. And I appreciate that much more now than ever. I also appreciate running my own business, as my two kiddos get to come to work with me everyday, and I can rearrange my schedule to allow time off for doctor’s appointments.
But here I am, just over four weeks out from surgery, still doing my one chemo drug every three weeks, but doing great. My hair is finally coming back at a pace that excites me! I even get to shave my legs and one armpit occasionally. I’m not sure how I got to this point, but I’d have to say it was my family. My two girls are such live wires that we don’t have time to dally on sad things. I am so thankful that they are young enough that they never understood the gravity of everything. It was, in their eyes, as simple as ‘mommy has an owie and the medicine makes her feel sick and lose her hair. We have to be careful with her.’
The doctor’s won’t call me ‘cancer free’ at the moment, but I have no doubts in my mind that we have conquered this and in a couple months, I am closing this chapter of my life. I will now always have ‘before cancer’ and ‘after cancer’ in my memories. And I will miss the body that I used to have. It may not have been perfect, but it was not scared. It was not missing pieces. Nor did it have foreign objects in it. There are days that I don’t feel much like a women, but that passes. I am strong. And I will not let cancer define me.”