Transitioning from Cancer Patient to Survivor Brings Bittersweet Emotions

Jennifer Severance smiles at for a photo

Life can change in an instant. In one moment everything can feel routine and under control, and in the next moment, it can feel like a complete whirlwind, with emotions and thoughts bouncing every which way.

For Jennifer Severance, it was business as usual in September 2018. It was time for her annual mammogram and, as she had done for so many years prior, she went in for the annual appointment.

Unfortunately, shortly after this year’s appointment, she received news that would change her life forever.

Jennifer was diagnosed with breast cancer.

Adding to what she described as “the sheer terror” of a cancer diagnosis, Jennifer also learned her breast cancer was triple negative – the most aggressive type of breast cancer.

Triple negative breast cancers account for about 10-20% of all breast cancers, are less responsive to traditional treatments, and generally have a higher rate of recurrence.

It was a daunting diagnosis for Jennifer to process.

“As a single mom, this was an extremely frightening time in my life as I wrestled with my diagnosis and ultimately, my mortality,” Jennifer said.

Once the initial shock of her cancer diagnosis passed, Jennifer knew it was time to put a plan in place. The first step was determining where to go for treatment and she was able to make that decision quickly.

“I never even considered receiving my care anywhere other than OHSU,” said Jennifer. “I had my twins at OHSU and received amazing care for myself and for them at Doernbecher and there was really no other option for me when it came to my journey, either.”

Over the next two years, Jennifer embarked on a treatment journey that included five surgeries, four months of oral chemotherapy and IV chemotherapy, and a clinical trial.

On taking part in the clinical trial, Jennifer calls herself “one of the lucky participants” and is looking forward to the research helping others down the road. “Hopefully the clinical trial will improve the prognosis for this terrible type of breast cancer that has taken so many young women’s lives.”

Despite the emotional and physical toll of a cancer diagnosis, Jennifer’s outlook is filled with hope and she’s grateful for the care she has and will continue to, receive.

“I knew that OSHU is on the cutting edge of medical care as a learning institution and that is exactly where I wanted to be,” she stated. “I have not been disappointed. Throughout my treatment at OHSU, I have had partners in my care, not just doctors, nurses, and other staff members. It is truly a team effort.”

As Jennifer transitions from cancer patient to cancer survivor, she is beginning to understand the depths of the personal relationships she has formed over the past two years with her care team. The thought of those relationships coming to an end is leaving her with an array of mixed emotions.

“I am feeling a bittersweet sense of loss as I close out parts of my treatment and say goodbye,” she said. “Loss in that I have developed meaningful relationships with my team, and excitement that I am closing the chapter on this part of my life.”

Her first goodbye was to Dr. Reid Mueller and Kindra Scanlon, DNP, Jennifer’s plastic surgery team which guided her through reconstruction surgery. While she admits it got a little “misty” during the post-op appointment, there’s no denying how wonderful it feels to check off this box and move on to the next.

“Hearing words like ‘last’ and ‘final’ are music to my ears,” Jennifer added. “I’m excited to close the chapter on this part of my journey.”

Jennifer says the final appointments, and the goodbyes associated with those final appointments, with her medical oncologist, Dr. Zahi Mitri, and surgical oncologist, Dr. John Vetto are a year or two down the road. Nevertheless, she doesn’t expect the emotions to differ.

Tears will be shed. Smiles will be shared. Hugs (at a distance) will be had.

“I am sure it will feel much the same,” she said.

As she looks back on her journey, the peaks and valleys still fresh in her memory, Jennifer is thankful to be in this position; the position of being able to say goodbye to members of her care team who were with her every step of the way.

And to everyone who helped her get to this position, she had one lasting message:

“I am eternally grateful to all of my team at the Knight Cancer Institute and OHSU. To all of you: thank you for the support, understanding, and genuine care I’ve experienced on my journey through what has been the most difficult time in my life. I can’t imagine anyone better to have by my side fighting with me.”