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Finding joy after successful cancer fight

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Jennifer Fullerton with her husband, Marc, and son Jack

She didn’t think it at the time, but Jennifer Fullerton now looks at breast cancer as a gift.

She struggled to digest the news when it was diagnosed ten years ago on the day after her 29th birthday and after she had been married for only four months.

“All I could think was, ‘I’m going to die’,” she said.

Next week she turns 39 and she is pregnant for the second time, with her twins due in December.

“I was lucky,” she said. “It’s like a gift wrapped in barbed wire. There’s a lot you have to go through to get to the centre. There is an appreciation for life and the small things that I think it’s really hard, otherwise, to have. And I got that gift at 29.”

She said she was surprised to find a lump in her right breast.

Mrs Fullerton recalled: “I went to the doctor, who said she wasn’t concerned because I was so young, but I could tell there was something wrong during the ultrasound. It was the end of the day, but when they said I needed a mammogram and that they would stay late, I knew something was wrong.”

She had the biopsy on a Monday. The next day, she learnt she had breast cancer.

Mrs Fullerton, a veterinarian, had all of her treatment at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston, which was arranged by her business partner, the late Neil Burnie.

“The moment I got there they started talking about ten years from now and ‘when you have your children’. I felt a million times better,” she said.

“Their knowledge and their experience was amazing and in a facility like that I was no longer unique. They didn’t know I was going to be 100 per cent fine, but the way they spoke to me gave me the positive mental attitude that I needed.”

A gene test showed she was BRCA2 positive. A woman’s lifetime risk of developing breast and/or ovarian cancer is greatly increased if she inherits the harmful mutation.

The newlywed was looking forward to a long life with her husband Marc and opted for the double mastectomy.

“I’d already decided that the best option for longevity was to have my breasts removed,” she said.

“I had gone up there thinking that I was going to be offered a lumpectomy, but that was not an option.”

Doctors took “the kitchen-sink approach”, which consisted of 16 weeks of chemotherapy, three weeks of recovery, then six and a half weeks of radiation.

Losing her hair was harder than losing her breasts.

“I know that doesn’t make any sense,” she said. “The recovery of losing your breasts is not an easy thing to go through at the age of 29, but I was okay with that because in my head it meant I was cancer free.”

Five years of hormonal therapy resulted in temporary menopause.

“I read somewhere that with breast cancer, if you die of something else, you know you’ve survived it.

“I had hot flashes, the whole bit, but for me it was absolutely fine because I was living. It allowed me to live. I came off hormonal therapy with the hope of starting a family.”

She became pregnant with Jack soon after. Her son is now three.

“I had stage 3 breast cancer,” she said. “I had a three-and-a-half centimetre tumour in my right breast. They did a lymph node dissection out of my right armpit. Out of 15, five were positive.”

“There is hope. Look at me, I’m ten years out. Three children — almost.”

The twins are the result of an IVF cycle she was encouraged to do at the start of her treatment. Mrs Fullerton was told that her ovaries would have to be removed in 2018.

“I would have been happy with one kid. I was blessed. With Jack, I got pregnant right away. I’m very grateful for the life I’ve been able to live, but with four in the freezer I wanted to give it one last go.”

She had tried to get pregnant sooner. Her mother, Marilyn Dickinson, died last year after battling with ALS.

“The breast cancer gene is an ovarian cancer gene, so there was pressure. My mum always wanted to meet all her grandchildren,” she said.

“Now that I’m pregnant and having twins, I miss her terribly. I am so grateful this happened before she died. The day after I was diagnosed, I said ‘Why is this happening to me?’

“She said, ‘I get it. Today you get to feel sorry for yourself all day and you get to say, why me? Tomorrow you’re going to say, why not me? And you’re going to pick yourself up and we’re going to fix this.’”

The advice helped her to not feel like a victim.

“I don’t look at this as something horrific that happened to me. It has made me who I am and I have the life I do because of this. For a long time I didn’t allow myself to get upset about small things like, oops, they lost my luggage. I was able to shrug them off. I knew I was getting a lot better when I started to get irritated about small things,” she laughed.

Jennifer Fullerton (Photograph by Akil Simmons)
Jennifer Fullerton (Photograph by Akil Simmons)