The year after high school should be one of the happiest times in life. College classes. Friends. Independence. The promise of a bright future with the world at your fingertips. But what happens when, at the very young age of 19, you learn you have breast cancer?
“I was lying in bed, and I felt something. I was really scared. It was very noticeable.”
That’s how teenager Jania Conelly’s journey with breast cancer began. It was a year after she graduated from Spring Hill High School in Chapin, S.C. Conelly was taking classes at North Carolina A&T University and working at Publix. She knew she wanted to pursue a career in the health field, but not exactly what.
“I found the lump on a Saturday, but I waited until Monday to tell my parents,” she said. “I held it from my family at first. I didn’t want to scare them.”
That’s because there’s a strong history of breast cancer in Jania’s family. Her paternal grandmother and two aunts had the disease – two diagnosed at ages 24 and 26.
(Click to view)
Jania made an appointment with her nurse practitioner Misty Sawyer, MSN, CFNP, at Lexington Women’s Care in Irmo, a Lexington Medical Center physician practice.
Sawyer confirmed the knot in Jania’s left breast and made a referral for her to Women’s Imaging for a mammogram and ultrasound. All the memories of her grandmother and aunts’ illnesses suddenly came flooding back. It was overwhelming.
“That’s when it all became real,” she said. “I broke down in Misty’s office. I told her, ‘It’s just really hitting me that something could be wrong with me.’”
And then Jania – as many teenage girls would do – called her mom.
“I said, ‘Mom? Are you busy?’”
Jania’s mom learned her very young daughter would need imaging on her breast.
“She said, ‘Don’t move! I’m coming!’” Jania’s mom raced home. So did her dad – making the half-hour drive to the doctor’s office in ten minutes.
“He said, ‘Are you OK? We got you. No matter what. We’re going to help you,’” she recalled.
Inside Women’s Imaging at Lexington Medical Center in Irmo, Jania had a mammogram, ultrasound and biopsy. In addition to the lump in Jania’s breast, the testing also revealed an enlarged lymph node.
Surprisingly, the biopsy results were negative for cancer. But she was referred to oncology surgeon Katherine T. Ostapoff, MD, of Lexington Surgery at Lexington Medical Center. Given Jania’s age and family history, Dr. Ostapoff believed the lump was going to get bigger and performed a lumpectomy.
Jania returned to Lexington Surgery days later to talk about the results of her lumpectomy.
“Dr. Ostapoff said, ‘Is your mom with you? Can you call her?’ I was wondering why I needed to call my mom,” Jania said. “I thought it was just a routine follow-up for my lumpectomy.”
Jania’s dad was with her. Nurses brought him into the exam room at Lexington Surgery.
“I thought she just wanted to involve my parents, but then the doctor said, ‘We did find cancer…’”
Once Jania heard that dreaded word she broke down, started crying – and didn’t hear anything else.
At age 19, Jania was diagnosed with stage two triple negative breast cancer.
“My dad picked me up like I was a baby and I was crying,” she said. “All the bad things I saw my aunts go through hit me and I got really scared.”
Who wouldn’t be scared – at any age.
Jania’s oncologist is James Wells III, MD, of Lexington Medical Cancer Center. Under his guidance, Jania underwent six months of chemotherapy, lost her hair and had a double mastectomy in March – at age 20. During this time, she learned that she carried the BRCA1 gene mutation, which makes women more likely to develop breast cancer.
Jania wants to have children one day but doesn’t know how the chemotherapy may have impacted her fertility. Doctors had spoken to her about freezing her eggs, but there wasn’t time to do that before chemotherapy.
Thankfully, though, scans show Jania is now cancer free.
Today, Jania continues college classes.
“It’s important even for very young women to be more conscious of breast health,” she said. “We need to do self-breast exams. It’s especially important because we don’t have yearly mammograms – so it can very easily go unnoticed.”
And remember when she was undecided about a career choice? That’s changed. She now wants to be an oncology nurse.
“My doctors and nurses at Lexington Medical Center made such an impression on me – I decided I wanted to give back,” she said.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR …
(Click to view)
Lexington Medical Center is a hospital system serving Columbia, Lexington, and the rest of the South Carolina Midlands area. For the second year in a row, U.S. News & World Report has named Lexington Medical Center as the best hospital in the Columbia Metro area.
WANNA SOUND OFF?
Got something you’d like to say in response to one of our articles? Or an issue you’d like to proactively address? We have an open microphone policy here at FITSNews! Submit your letter to the editor (or guest column) via email HERE. Got a tip for a story? CLICK HERE. Got a technical question or a glitch to report? CLICK HERE.