Why a Private Person Goes Public: Jesica Harringon’s Battle with Breast Cancer While Pregnant
Jesica Harrington is a 5th grade teacher at Timber Trail Elementary School in Castle Rock, Colorado whose patient story was featured on the Johnson & Johnson (J&J) website and in their 2009 Annual Report. Jesica was diagnosed with breast cancer while pregnant with twins, lost one of the babies a month later, and “underwent a mastectomy before beginning four rounds of chemotherapy.” She searched for information online and found little on battling breast cancer while pregnant. Her father, who also searched, found out about a blood test that captures, identifies, and counts circulating tumor cells in patients with certain types of metastatic cancer, which Jesica asked her doctor to order. Jesica delivered a healthy baby boy, completed her cancer treatment, and is in remission. I contacted her because of my interest in patient stories, curious about how her story was featured by J&J and why she decided to tell her story in a very public way.
Lisa: You mentioned that being diagnosed with breast cancer when you were pregnant made it harder to find information. Did you find that the professionals treating were less prepared?
Jesica: Initially, the diagnosing doctor seemed insecure about diagnosing my cancer and in explaining how we would treat it. It was through our (mine and my husband’s) persistence that we went around the recommended procedure and sought out an oncologist directly to help us learn about what we would do with breast cancer and being pregnant with twins. My oncologist came highly recommended and had prior experience with women in my situation, so I felt I was in good hands.
Lisa: Did you search for information online about breast cancer and pregnancy, or did people recommend sites to you?
Jesica: I had friends send me all kinds of information, mostly success stories and current practices similar to what I was dealing with. I searched for answers as well, especially because I had so many questions. The problem was realizing there is a fine line between being/getting educated and just knowing too much.
Lisa: What did you find that was ultimately most helpful?
Jesica: Factual information about types of cancer, methods to treat, drugs and their side effects, and a couple of stories about local women, whom I talked with, who had been through breast cancer while pregnant.
Lisa: How did you learn about J&J’s test?
Jesica: My father was looking for methods to monitor how and if chemotherapy is working. He came across a local news story, which led us to a newly released test used at the University of Colorado Cancer Center (UCCC). He told me to take a look at the article, that it was something he thought I should do. I contacted a rep from the UCCC and inquired how I could take the test. I persuaded my oncologist to order the test and we went from there.
Lisa: Why did you decide to tell your story?
Jesica: People were interested in the information I had. I am a very private person, but also felt that this was something I had to share. I couldn’t keep it secret, when my own life affected so many around me (students, parents, coworkers, family, friends, neighbors, doctors, other women in my situation, media…) In the back of my mind, I hoped that my diagnosis and battle with breast cancer could and would be used for future references. After I had been diagnosed, all of my students and co-workers wanted to support me in my battle-they held a “carnival for the cure” from which all proceeds went to my family and me. Through this event, local papers and news media were contacted. My story initially appeared on a newscast and in a couple of newspapers.
Lisa: Would you have told others your story had your situation been more “typical”?
Jesica: Yes, but it wasn’t. I knew that there had to be more people like me out there searching for information and feeling helpless. Why not take what I’ve experienced and let others learn from it, both from a personal perspective and from a medical point of view.
Lisa: Can you tell me more about the process where J&J contacted, interviewed, and photographed you?
Jesica: Through a publication put out at UCCC, J&J contacted me about the CTC test. I was approached to educate people who are going through a similar experience and to get the word out about a test I found to be helpful during my treatment. I told J&J my story by phone and shared my CaringBridge page as well provided background about all I’d been through. A couple of people come out to interview me, take pictures, and shoot video, both at school while I was teaching and at home that evening. Everything was 100% accurate in both the article and video except they mentioned Boulder instead of Castle Rock in the video.
Lisa: How did you feel about including your students and your family?
Jesica: Fine; I thought it was for a good cause. Someone could learn from my story and experiences and could see what to expect if they happen to be in the same situation. I’d like to think I was a success story, which we all need to help us find motivation to fight a battle such as one with breast cancer.
Lisa: I was surprised J&J posted the two articles and videos at http://www.jnj.com/connect/caring/patient-stories/hope-against-cancer/ and http://www.investor.jnj.com/2009annualreport/medical-devices/hope.html without telling you – it seems like they should have let you know, do you agree?
Lisa: You mentioned that you did other interviews – what made you decide to?
Jesica: I felt strongly about letting others know about a blood test that was out there to help with tracking chemo throughout treatment. I knew the information wasn’t prevalent and I wanted to get it out there.
Lisa: Has it been helpful for your friends and family that you were open about the process you were going though?
Jesica: Yes, information is very powerful. I wanted my friends and family to know and understand what I was going through. People always feel helpless when others are struggling with a disease and going through treatment and they don’t always know how to help, but by being open about it, I think they felt more comfortable in being there for me instead of feeling sorry for me.
Lisa: Finally, does it help you to know that you are helping others? Does talking about it help you process your own emotions?
Jesica: Yes, to both. I’m a teacher – it’s in my blood. I’ve written journals all my life; it’s something that helps me be able to process what comes my way, to reflect and cope.