A Breast Cancer Survivor's Journey of Strength and Hope: An Interview with Jana V.

Q: First off, congratulations on your 20th year anniversary of being breast cancer free! How does this anniversary feel different?

Jana:  Thank you!  I am thankful for every year that I remain cancer free.  But when I hit a major milestone like 10 years or this year to say 20 years, it is more impactful for me.  I reflect more on how breast cancer impacted my life, the choices I have made personally and professionally that are directly linked to my cancer experience.  The course of my life was definitively changed by that experience 20 years ago.  And I am absolutely convinced that had I not been treated when I was, my life would have been cut short. 

Jana V and Family portrait

Q: Can you tell us more about your survivor story?

Jana:  There are many parts to my story because it covers 20 years, and it continues to evolve.      My story starts where many people’s story starts, with a routine mammogram.  In 2000 I was 35 years old and my doctor recommended a first-time baseline mammogram.  I was healthy with no family history of breast cancer and generally do all the appropriate preventive screenings my doctor advises.  So, we did the mammogram.  The mammogram showed some calcifications, and it was recommended that I have a repeat mammogram in 6 months.  Looking back, I didn’t know enough to even be concerned.  I was told that they could be perfectly normal and that the way to make sure was to do the repeat mammogram to monitor for changes.  I scheduled the follow up, left the appointment, and promptly forgot about it!

I did go for the follow up 6 months later in February 2001.  We did the mammogram and the radiologist immediately looked at it and told me you have cancer.  She then began to tell me more detail about what she saw on the film.  I remember asking for a piece of paper and a pen so that I could take notes.  They recommended I see a surgeon as soon as possible to have a biopsy.  I remember asking how do I find a surgeon?  They were very patient, answered my questions, referred me to a surgeon and then sent me home. 

I received excellent advice and chose my medical team that consisted of a Medical Oncologist, a Surgical Oncologist, a Radiation Oncologist, and a Psychiatrist.  My cancer was rare and very aggressive.   I was told that left untreated my life expectancy was 4 to 5 years.  The best course of action was to “hit it hard.”  What followed over the next 10 months included four surgeries, chemotherapy, radiation therapy and a reconstruction surgery.  Choosing the right team was critical.  Not only in terms of the right treatment but in giving me the confidence to make the incredible number of decisions throughout the process. 

Much of my story and the impact on my life occurred in 2001.  I was a single career woman working at the executive level.  I found support first from my employer.  They supported my need for time off and understood the emotional nature of dealing with cancer treatment.  Their support enabled me to focus on my treatment and getting well.  My parents, family and friends also supported me.  In some cases my personal relationships grew stronger during this time.  However, for some of my friends having someone face a life-threatening illness is too much to handle and they needed to distance from me at this time.  I learned that people do as much as they can, but it can be too overwhelming to deal with this type of situation.  Support can come from where you least expect it, but it is there when you need it if you are open to it.

I met 3 wonderful people at an educational program early in my diagnosis.  We formed The Group.  We were 31, 35, 45 and 55 years of age and all diagnosed around the same time.  These women understood.  They were bald at the same time I was, were juggling a career, one was single like me, three of us were pre-menopausal (that comes with all kinds of other issues and decisions) and all blind-sided by the diagnosis.  And we were on speed dial for each other 24/7. 

And I made it through 2001!  And the next step of the cancer journey started.

I was different.  My perspective on life had changed.  I thought more about what I wanted out of life, the contributions I wanted to make personally and professionally, and the course of my actions adjusted to this new perspective.

Personally, the biggest change I made was making more time for personal relationships.  I’m still a hard-working career woman, but I made time to meet, date and marry my husband, Tim.  He accepts and supports the scars (physically and emotionally) that fade over time but sometime flare back up under certain circumstances.  Fear of the cancer coming back is real, but it doesn’t surface every day or even every year, but periodically when it does, he is there for me until it passes.  And as my friends hear me say frequently, my husband is ever so dreamy!

And I became “the family history.”  My mother, sisters, aunts, cousins, and nieces all changed their answer when they went for their mammograms – Yes, they have a family history of breast cancer.  My cousin was next to be diagnosed a few years after me, then my older sister, and most recently my younger sister just a couple of years ago.  My nieces started their mammograms at the age of 25 due to the history.  Their youngest memories of me at age 9 and 11 include trying on scarves with me when I was bald and walking with me in Komen Race for The Cure.  They are both engaged to be married in 2022 and will carry the awareness and family history on to their future children.  Because of this my journey isn’t a onetime event that is in the past – it continues to evolve over time.

My professional goals also shifted.  My path to HR was anything but a straight line.  I have a business degree with a minor in accounting and a minor in HR.  I spent the first 18 years of my career in Accounting and IT positions.  During that time, I managed large departments and I worked with the HR department as most of you work with our department today, as a business leader and manager.

My perspective changed when I got cancer.   Suddenly I was an employee navigating health care benefits and insurance and facing an inability to work at the same high level I expected of myself.  Deductibles, Co-pays, Maximum Out of Pocket expense, pre-authorization for surgery and the list goes on and on.  I was now an employee using the benefits that had always been just a safety net, out there in case you really needed them for something like a car accident. 

Once I fully recovered, I began to reflect on my career and how I could contribute the most through my work.  I shifted my focus.  I wanted to apply my business skills to the discipline of Human Resources in a company that recognizes that we have a business to run, but it can only run with the right People in place and can only be successful when we recognize that our people are human.  I’ve spent the last 16 years of my career working in HR to balance doing what is right for people with what is right for the business. 

At Populus and ACE I have found a company whose mission aligns with my personal purpose. 

In 2001 I bought a necklace with 3 inspiration rings – STRENGTH, WISDOM, COURAGE.  I wore that necklace constantly and wear it frequently now.  Those three words are the go to attributes for me. 

Strength to face whatever comes at me. 

Wisdom to find the path through.  This includes “Keep Calm and Carry On” and “There’s always a Plan B.”

Courage to take action.  Do the right thing even if it isn’t popular.  Take the first step and build momentum from there.

I want to live my life demonstrating Strength, Wisdom and Courage.

My last cancer surgery was on October 31, 2001 and I’m looking forward my 30-year cancer free anniversary in October of 2031!

Q: How has breast cancer awareness changed in the past 20 years since your diagnosis?

Jana:  Awareness of breast cancer seems to have followed the substantial improvements in treatment methods and options that have been developed during the past twenty years.  Today I see television advertisements for advanced treatment of metastatic breast cancer.  That didn’t exist twenty years ago.  Visibility to the treatments available increases awareness of the disease and the methods to detect it. 

As the stigma of cancer decreases it is also easier to talk openly about early detection methods such as monthly self-exams and annual mammograms.  We aren’t as embarrassed to talk about these things.

And finally, organizations like the National Breast Cancer Foundation that focus on awareness and early detection are mature organizations that efficiently support getting the word out and supporting research and development of treatments.  That wasn’t the case 20 years ago.

Q: What is the most important thing you want people to know during breast cancer awareness month?

Jana:  For men, talk to your wives, daughters, mothers, nieces, and other important women in your life about breast cancer awareness and encourage them to get their mammograms.  And men can get breast cancer too.  Don’t ignore symptoms!

For women 

If you haven’t had your mammogram: “Get your mammogram. If you have health insurance, it is usually free.  All our Populus health plans cover the screening at 100%.”  

If you have a symptom of breast cancer: “Don’t wait to see the doctor.  Early detection can mean less invasive treatments and a higher chance of a cancer free result.  It is better to know, than to ignore it until it is too late.”

If you are in treatment for breast cancer: “You are not alone.  It is one of the most frightening things to experience and you must have the STRENGTH to persevere through the journey.  Reach out to others for support and encouragement.  They will give you COURAGE to continue.  And when it is the most difficult ask for the WISDOM to know that the bad day will pass and there are better days to come.”

Q: What does the ACE Cash Express partnership with the National Breast Cancer Foundation mean to you?

Jana:  Working for a company with a core principle of SERVICE is important to me. One way that I show my support of NBCF is through use of my ACE/NBCF pink debit card. I use it often.  It is easy for me to support a cause that is so personally meaningful.  And the partnership has been in place since 2006.  That says a lot about both of our organizations.  A partnership that has resulted in over $7 million in donations reflects a partnership that trusts each other and respects the value of each organization.