As women approach their 40th birthday, considered to be an important one, there’s a lot to think about. For Jen Hayes Lee, she had even more to consider, as she spent the last year of her 30s trying to keep a breast cancer diagnosis at bay. She was successful.
Lee, who was featured in our 2021 September/October issue, lost her mother to breast cancer in her mid-50s. Her father passed away of prostate cancer in 2018. So when Hayes Lee decided to have genetic testing done at the beginning of 2021 and was positive for a mutation of the breast cancer 2 gene, she chose to remove her breasts.
When ESSENCE first spoke to Lee about the decision, she was preparing for a number of surgeries to come. We caught up with Lee a year later to see how she’s feeling, physically and emotionally, after completing the extensive process and healing from breast reconstruction. Here’s what she had to say about her journey and what’s next.
ESSENCE: Are you all finished with the process and if so, how are you feeling?
Jen Hayes Lee: I’m finished with all of the major procedures, so it’s incredible to have gotten over that hump. Anything else from here would be optional. One of the great silver linings is that you’re medically covered to do revisions to ensure you’re happy with the aesthetic result. And listen, after all the things that women go through with this process, especially those who have a cancer diagnosis, it’s nice to feel pleased and satisfied with the end result.
How long were the healing stages, and the wait between these different surgeries? I read in the story that it was breast reduction and lift, the double mastectomy, the reconstruction, and then the transfer.
They recommended I wait at least six months after the reduction before I got the double mastectomy, which I had in February ’22. My healthcare team felt like three months was enough healing time between the double mastectomy and my breast reconstruction which I had in May of this year. I actually pivoted a little since our first interview. My initial plan was to get implants as part of my breast reconstruction. Instead, I opted for a natural breast reconstruction called a DIEP where they use your own tissue to create the breasts.
Tissue from where exactly?
It’s a much more intense microvascular surgery than getting implants, but you end up with a more natural feeling and looking breasts. The donor tissue site was my belly. After having three kids, it was really nice to get the bonus of a flatter tummy, reconstructed breasts, and a dramatically reduced risk of breast cancer. There’s no wrong decision and every woman has to make the right decision for her, but after surveying all my options, and talking to my doctor, we felt like this was the right way to go. Plus, I won’t have to worry about complications down the line with implants.
I know you initially wanted to go back to a 36DD. How much tissue was necessary for that?
Throughout the process, I learned to manage my expectations. I wanted to go back to my original size, but I didn’t know I would end up going “to the DIEP side”. I didn’t know it would be an option for me because initially, my doctor wasn’t sure I had enough belly fat to do it. I had to take everything month by month, appointment by appointment until I healed through each stage of the process and we had enough information to make a really informed decision.
When my doctor ultimately green-lit the DIEP, he didn’t tell me to gain weight, but he said, “You probably don’t want to lose any weight.” In a funny way, that gave me the license to enjoy dessert for the next couple of months, and I did! By the time I had my final transfer for the breast reconstruction, I had enough fat tissue to pull from. I’m probably a strong C-cup now.
And so how are you feeling overall outside of just the physical? What are the feelings that kind of come with this end-stage process?
First and foremost, I am beyond the moon grateful. It’s been a long road. It’s been a long journey, but for the most part, I was the one who got to drive “the what”, “the when”, and “the how” in collaboration with my talented healthcare team at Memorial Sloan Kettering. During the double mastectomy in February, they removed ~98% of my original breast tissue. After the procedure, the oncologist called me and shared that there was no cancer detected in the tissue they sent to the lab. The good news is that they wouldn’t need to do any additional testing to find out if the cancer had spread to another part of my body. I was in the clear! But she also told me, “We did, however, see atypical cells in the tissue from your right breast, and if we had seen that, and you had not gotten a double mastectomy, we would recommend cancer prevention medication immediately.” Atypical cells are precancerous cells. When she gave me that news,I felt like she literally saved my life. It was a really big moment and I’m grateful I didn’t wait. I have to believe that made a huge difference in how all of this could have ended up.
And do you think you would take any further preventative measures? With the positive genetic test for the BRCA 2 gene, I know some people get hysterectomies and things like that. So how do you feel about that kind of process, or do you want just to take it, again, day by day, or year by year?
Women who have the BRCA2 genetic mutation, like myself, do have an elevated risk of ovarian cancer. That said, I’m not ready to go into another preventative measure to remove my ovaries and induce early-onset menopause. But I do have one thing going in my favor. When I had my youngest son, my OB-GYN actually removed my fallopian tubes after the C-section. At that time I had not taken the genetic test, but she knew about the breast cancer history in my family. When I asked her to tie my tubes, she said, “Jen, I don’t tie tubes, I remove tubes.” Serendipitously, the fallopian tube removal will likely play a role in reducing my ovarian cancer risk.
Do you feel like you have a new lease on life in a sense because you got in front of something that could have been devastating because of your family history?
I am a breast cancer previvor; that’s what they call it. I am a previvor, and part of what made this process emotional, but also gave me such confidence and assurance, was that I get to live out what my mom didn’t get to live out. That duality makes me sad and mourn for her but iI also know she was the one pushing me along in this process. Like all parents, you want your kids to have what you didn’t have. I absolutely feel like I have a new lease on life and I know that breast cancer is not going to be the thing that takes me out or takes me away from my family.
So what’s next for you after completing this part of your journey?
I have an even greater perspective now that I’ve taken the leap to prioritize my health and made it through the double mastectomy and breast reconstruction. Was it easy? Certainly not. But would I do it again? 100% yes. And the outpouring of love and support that I got from my family, friends, co-workers, and the outstanding team at Memorial Sloan Kettering led by Dr. Joseph Dayan, made a tough time a lot easier. I hold such gratitude for being able to rewrite my story and not only become a breast cancer survivor but a previvor.
It’s impossible to feel like this is the end of my journey. It’s imperative to pay it forward and help other Black women understand their breast cancer risk and shine a light on the importance of genetic testing, especially since it played such a critical role in my process. I’ve been educated about the alarming breast cancer statistics facing young Black women in the U.S. Overall, Black women with breast cancer have a 71% higher relative risk of death than white women. For young Black women, those of us under 50 years old are dying at two times the rate of white women and those of us under 35 are dying at three times the rate of white women. Those are scary numbers.
To that end, I’ve launched The Golden Hoop Project in partnership with my alma mater, Emory University. Together, we’re creating a pipeline for young Black women under 50 to receive access to free genetic testing and counseling through the funds raised. My initial goal of $10K will provide access to 50 young Black women and I hope that we’ll raise much more.
My incredible late mother, Dr. Irma J. Bland, was a fierce, golden hoop-rocking Black woman and so am I. Our golden hoops bond us, but they’ve also taken on a new meaning for me. I truly believe golden hoops are presented in life when you arrive at the crossroads of adversity and opportunity. I’ve certainly had my share, but sometimes you just have to jump through that hoop and turn a negative into a positive.
My “girls” may be a little smaller, but my odds of survival are exponentially greater. This is just the beginning and I’m officially a breast cancer awareness advocate for life — especially when it comes to our community. I feel immensely grateful to be on this side of it and it’s a privilege to do my part.
Learn more about the Golden Hoop Project here.