By CALLIE DANIELS BRYANT
She is a researcher. She is a wife and mother. And she has breast cancer.
Jennifer Caldwell, who lives in Senatobia, found out she had Stage Three breast cancer (ER+PR+ meaning invasive ductal) when she was 28 in 2008.
“I had just gotten off birth control so that we could try to start a family,” Caldwell said, “when we found a lump and eventually that led to the diagnosis. First in my family. I had genetic testing done; I don’t carry any gene related to it.”
A few years later, her mother discovered she also had breast cancer.
“Two random cases that just happened to be mother and daughter,” Caldwell said. “She passed away a few years later, but got to see (my son) Brinkley born and got to play with him for almost six months.”
“That was really hard, losing her and being a new mom myself. But I try to remember to be glad that she got to help me with him at first. She would so enjoy him now though – he just turned three,” Caldwell added.
From 2008 to 2009, Caldwell had eight rounds of IV Chemotherapy along with radiation as well as double mastectomy and reconstruction surgeries.
“That (chemo) is the kind you usually think of,” Caldwell said. “I lost my hair, threw up a lot, always felt tired, etc. I also had to put off trying to get pregnant for at least five years to take Tamoxifen. Horomones make my cancer grow and the Tamoxifen helps it not bind a certain way. There’s not a lot of data on getting pregnant after breast cancer treatment because more women are older and done having kids when they get diagnosed.”
On Sept. 11, 2013, Caldwell’s doctors said she could stop taking Tamoxifen to try for a baby since she was cancer-free for a while. She had her son, Oxford Brinkley Caldwell, exactly one year later to the same day.
Her son’s initials are OBC, the same as Oxford Billiard Club where she met her husband, Cody Caldwell, when she was an undergraduate psychology major at the University of Mississippi. The building doesn’t exist but their love still does.
“My husband Cody and I have been together since 1999,” she said, “We were young – 18 and 19 – and waited a long time before getting married. We got married in 2006 in the Grove. Ole Miss has always been a big part of our lives.”
She remembers working on her thesis and dissertation writing while going through chemotherapy for the first time while earning her Ph.D. in experimental psychology at the University of Mississippi.
Now she teaches three online classes at the University of Mississippi: general psychology, abnormal psychology and cognitive psychology. She is the Senior Research Compliance Specialist with the research department at the university.
“Basically, I oversee the ethics boards that review and approve animal and human subjects’ research and I help write policies and procedures, do reports and review research,” she said.
Now nearing 40 years, Caldwell battles cancer as fiercely as she lives her life.
“(The cancer) was in ‘remission’ which is a term doctors don’t like to use because they can’t promise that nothing is there,” Caldwell said. “We call it ‘NED’ or ‘No Evidence of Disease.’”
Since 2009 she had blood work done every six months. This February Caldwell’s blood work tumor markers came back as elevated and after biopsies her doctors diagnoses a recurrence.
When she had her first diagnosis in 2008 the cancer was found in lymph nodes in her armpit.
“Yes, it is now in my more ‘distant’ lymph nodes, some around my sternum and some near my clavicle. So far the scans aren’t showing any bone or organ spread. My next scan is in a few weeks,” she said.
She immediately began Lupron shots to halt her ovaries and changed from Tamoxifen to Femera, a different type of medicine that affects hormones although the patient must be menopausal to imbibe.
Then on April 20, Caldwell had a full hysterectomy with ovaries, cervix and uterus and fallopian tubes all taken out. Now she takes Ibrance which could be described as a pill form of chemotherapy. She describes the chemo-like effects are milder now. She takes this medicine every day for three weeks then takes a week off to recover before starting over.
She doesn’t let cancer slow her down. Caldwell said, “It can be exhausting! But I wouldn’t have it any other way. I like my jobs, I love my family, staying busy makes me feel normal if a little tired. I have joint pain with the medicines too but that and fatigue has been my biggest side effects so not really too bad.”
She lives in Senatobia, but the family is looking to move to Oxford soon. Her son attends Oxford University School and her husband works four 10-hour days with the CN Railroad.
“I’m trying to learn to do more stuff at home on the weekends like getting laundry and lunches and dinners read for the week since my weeks are so busy,” she said.
Through it all her friends and family showed endless support and one friend made t-shirts and bracelets that proclaim “Team Jenn.”
She also joined a support group in Memphis for Stage Four cancer patients, and she is becoming involved with METAvivor which is an organization that strives to channel research funding into Stage Four breast cancer.
“(It) is often very underfunded even though it’s the only stage that kills,” Caldwell said, “The ‘Meta” is short for metastasis which means when cancer has spread out of the original site.”
She has arranged a fundraiser at Chili’s with a “give-back” lunch and dinner next month where a part of the proceeds will go to METAvivor.
Caldwell also writes about her breast cancer battle in her blog: keepingabreastofchange.blogspot.com.
When asked what people should do for those with cancer, Caldwell said, “Just do stuff for people. Bring dinner over or set up a play date. Don’t wait for people to ask. Even when we are sick, we are proud and don’t ask for help. Telling people you are here if they need you is not enough; just do something you know will be helpful. Be specific. I have a friend that just offered recently to come spend a few days and nights with me to do whatever I need. She is going to help me organize and downsize some stuff so my days will be easier. And always tell everyone you love that you love them.”
She also shares advice for those who are newly diagnosed with cancer: “Find someone who has been through it – me! – and let them answer all your questions. Vent to them. They know what it’s like; there’s no one better to talk to. And if you know someone going through it? Help them…(remember) specific things. Don’t just say, ‘Oh let me know if I can do anything,’ because we are warriors and will not take you up on it. Tell them: ‘Hey, I’m bringing dinner tonight so you don’t have to cook. What does your family like to eat?’”
She admits her feelings on having cancer fluctuates. “The first time I went through it was more tumultuous,” she said, “I had a lot of breakdowns and it’s so unfair. But I got put on an antidepressant back then – mainly for anxiety – and that has helped a lot.
“I still have the occasional breakdown and get sad about having this, but for the most part it’s just what it is. I can say that right now, from a place of hope, because it hasn’t spread to bones or organs yet. However I feel that if or when it gets worse, I may have less of a positive attitude. Maybe I’ll still take it in stride as best as I can, I don’t know,” she said.
One thing she does know is that she loves her life, her job, her husband and her son, and her family and friends. She has battled cancer since she was 28, and she is ready to keep fighting so she can keep singing karaoke, making arts and crafts for their home and playing with her three-year-old Brinkley as she hangs out with her husband and their friends.
“(All that) takes up a lot of my time,” she said with a full heart.
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