For Whitney, then 31, from Pensacola, Florida, a routine self-breast exam marked the beginning of an unexpected journey. While in the shower, Whitney felt a small lump in her right breast. She wasn’t initially concerned, but when her dogs — a Dalmatian Pyrenees mix and Labrador Great Dane mix — started behaving strangely towards her, it made her think twice.
“They wouldn't let me out of their sight,” Whitney recalled, now 32. “They were constantly on top of me and really aware of everything I did and everywhere I went.”
Their constant presence convinced Whitney to make an appointment with her primary care provider, Christina Senesa, a nurse practitioner at Ascension Medical Group Sacred Heart Primary Care-Airport. Following Whitney’s exam, Christina was concerned and ordered an ultrasound. The ultrasound led to a mammogram and later a breast biopsy. Whitney was diagnosed with breast cancer on November 18. When an MRI later detected four tumors, she elected to have a double mastectomy. During that time, her surgeon also removed lymph nodes from under her armpits.
“I don't have a history of cancer of any kind in my family,” Whitney said. “I come from a very healthy family. So, for me to have gotten breast cancer was a complete shock.”
While the surgery removed the cancer, her medical oncologist Dr. Zachary Wright at Ascension Sacred Heart Cancer Center, wanted to give her the best chance for the future. She started a 12-week regimen of chemotherapy to reduce the chance of cancer returning. She also elected to remove her uterus and ovaries.
According to Dr. Wright, for high-risk diseases in premenopausal women, there is a survival advantage in ovarian suppression. This can be done through medication or by surgically removing the ovaries.
Whitney said she’s incredibly grateful for her husband who was with her every step of the way. She also leaned on friends, family and God. “I had so many people praying for me and my family was so supportive,” she said. “As soon as we found out what was going on, they were on top of it. My mom traveled from North Carolina for all my major surgeries.”
There were many days where Whitney felt depressed, angry, sad, and questioned God’s plan. “Being diagnosed with cancer was a punch to the gut,” she said. “Going through chemo was hard physically. Watching my hair fall out was the hardest on me emotionally.”
Whitney let herself feel those emotions, no matter how bad. She said her cancer journey was like a puzzle. If she looked at all the puzzle pieces at one time on the table, it was overwhelming. “But if I took one piece at a time, it was more manageable.”
A coffee mug that her cousins gifted her gave Whitney a goal after finishing chemotherapy. The mug read: “This is my chemo mug and I will smash it into a thousand pieces when this is all over.”
Breaking that mug was the perfect ending to her cancer journey.