GALLIA COUNTY — Jodie Penrod is a woman who wears many hats and she will tell you that is a figurative and literal statement.
She is a working mom and wife, daughter, friend and breast cancer survivor – the latter of which she’s attempting to make an unexpected space for in life.
Cancer typically falls under the unexpected and unwanted but as Jodie points out, so do many other things. This is her continuing story about her unexpected.
Life has its seasons and most football seasons, she is on the sidelines while her husband Alex coaches high school football. Alex is the head varsity football coach for the Gallia Academy Blue Devils. Ironically, during one of their family’s most difficult times, the team is having one of its best starts in three decades. The difficulty began in April.
At 37 years old, she decided to get healthier and lose some weight after having two babies in the course of two years. She credits losing the weight (25 pounds) with helping her detect a lump in her breast she may’ve otherwise missed while taking a bath.
A self-described “worrier,” she said when she gets concerned, it’s “literally all I can think about until I do something about it.”
With the help of family friend Leighana Siders, she was soon scheduled for a mammogram at Pleasant Valley Hospital. The mammogram led to an ultrasound and a flurry of activity that “was making me nervous,” Jodie said. “They kept wanting (to do) more and more.” The next day she was scheduled for a biopsy which was an experience she described as “not pleasant.” During this visit, before she heard “the word,” she said, “All I can think about is ‘how can I have cancer? I’m 37. How is that possible?’”
About a week later the results were in and the diagnosis was confirmed. A 1.6-cm tumor diagnosed as invasive ductable carcenoma which was estrogen positive – the estrogen positive diagnosis meant a treatable type of cancer. She also found she was HR2 negative, another piece of good news during an otherwise very bad news cycle. This meant she could begin hormonal therapy to hinder the cancer so it wouldn’t grow.
After gathering as much information as she could about her choices and her body, she made the decision to have a double mastectomy followed by immediate breast reconstruction surgery. Unfortunately, the reconstructive aspect of the surgery had complications, not to mention the physical risk and emotional toll of recovery. She couldn’t pick up her toddler while she healed and she didn’t heal as planned. She is now looking at a second attempt at that reconstruction in December. Until then, she has found a place in Huntington that helped fit her for prosthetics and bra inserts so her clothes fit her again. She said not having breasts after having them for all those years just didn’t feel “normal” and “you feel very exposed” without that normalcy and familiarity regarding your body.
There’s nothing familiar about chemotherapy to the body. Jodie describes it as her “least favorite part” of this healing journey. She said the whole process of placing those drugs in her body feels like a very “counterintuitive process…you are literally poisoning yourself to get better.” Recently, she ended up in the hospital for a couple days with severe nerve and joint pain from her treatment regimen. The good news, she said, is that there’s usually some remedy to help manage whatever side effects someone experiences.
Jodie is always looking forward and planning for solutions for the unexpected, along with Alex and their daughters Jemma who is 4 and Jessa who is 2.
Her girls obviously noticed that Jodie’s hair began to fall out, though they are too young to understand why.
“I definitely didn’t tell them that mommy has cancer because I don’t know that they would even understand what that meant,” she said. “My four-year old asked if it (her hair) will grow back and I said it will. They (her daughters) love to wear hats with me.”
She said the bonding and consistency of hat wearing in their household has gotten to the point where if Jodie forgets to put one on, the two-year old will instruct her to get it together with the directive “hat, hat,” as a reminder to wear one. The four-year old, who used to like to play with Jodie’s hair, now likes to rub her head and says “it’s spiky.”
“Honestly at the end of the day I don’t think either know mommy is sick. They know mommy has medicine that makes her hair fall out. I don’t want this to be a thing for them.”
As to how she felt when her hair went away, she said it was hard when it was happening but after it all came out, it was “No big thing. I feel more beautiful without it in a weird way. You just see yourself for who you are…you see yourself a little more clearly when you don’t have to worry about it (the hair and the surface).”
She hopes to finish chemo in November, followed by her reconstruction and radiation. Then in spring 2020, she plans to have a hysterectomy in order to mitigate the risk of additional cancer given her regimen of hormonal therapy. She can see a finish line, with benchmarks on the horizon which everyone in life needs. She reminds herself she has a disease that can be treated and never forgets there are others with crosses much larger to bear with no benchmarks in sight.
“I tell people this (cancer) is the worst and best thing that’s ever happened in my life. There’s nothing that can bring you down to your knees quicker than hearing the words ‘you have cancer.’ At the end of the day, it has made me a much stronger person and made me regain my faith in God and people. I’m humbled by the support of everyone I come across. When the world is so bad I can now see all the good that is out there and you stop paying attention to the bad.”
Despite the uplift she has experienced lately, there are down days.
“Honestly, there’s days I don’t feel well…half the battle is keeping your mind positive. There’s a lot of black holes you can talk yourself down in this situation. I’m a ‘what if’ person and someone that worries. I’m trying to figure out strategies to help keep my mind from not taking me down those black holes.”
Part of that strategy was to connect with others who have experienced a breast cancer diagnosis. Word-of-mouth and social media travels fast and once her diagnosis was known, she received several messages from others who have had similar experiences. She leaned on some of them for advice for everything from physical to mental health – the latter of which is often overlooked.
“At the end of the day, I had so many breast cancer survivors reach out to me…they would give me tips and I will tell you its been the most valuable thing…having other women who have been through it (share their stories). If I can do that for someone else…saying the word survivor is such a weird thing for me,” she said. “I don’t think I’ll ever be out of the woods. If there’s one person out there I can help (by sharing her story), then I’m OK with it.”
When asked some advice Jodie would pass along to the newly diagnosed, she had the following to offer:
– Don’t Google. Talk to doctors first, get a treatment plan, get the facts and then Google away.
– Find those who have walked a similar path who are willing to talk because as she put it, “They will have something to help you.”
– Find the humor where you can when you need it most.
– “Chemo is a scary word but it’s manageable…you can live a somewhat normal life with it.”
– Allow yourself to be vulnerable enough to let people help you…“Most people do want to help but they don’t know how.”
Jodie explained a friend arranged a “meal train” for her family when she began her cancer journey and how not having to worry about what’s for dinner made a hard situation easier. She’s received many cards in the mail as well, saving them all in a box, adding, a card sounds simple but it carries with it good thoughts and the knowledge “people want the best for you.” On a bad day, this can make all the difference.
Sometimes the difference maker is whatever version of “normalcy” a person can muster on any given day for themselves or someone else. Like “normal,” (and despite her diagnosis) Jodie has not stopped working. She has continued in her career with the Heritage College of Osteopathic Medicine at Ohio University where she is the senior director of technology. She says she has the “best work family possible” and she does work from home on the weeks when she has her chemo treatments. Also, as treasurer of DRP in Gallipolis, she stays active in that organization. All of this “normalcy” does “bring a little bit of balance” to her life.
“I still try to do normal things, to be out there and be normal,” she said. “You’re the bald girl in the room but you’re still there.”
After all, she said, one does get tired of only one topic of conversation, whether that be cancer or ____ (insert your one unexpected thing here).
She spends a lot of time looking forward and specifically, “I’m looking forward to not having this dark cloud over my head.” When she has her last round of chemo next month, she anticipates some parting of the clouds when this major mile marker is noted and checked off a long list.
“I never wanted to have cancer in my life,” she said. “This is one more thing I have to worry about for the rest of my life. I wouldn’t wish it on anybody but if it was going to happen to anyone, I’m glad it’s me. It bothers me some people don’t have the support system I have. What really bothers me about cancer is kids that have to go through it, so, at the end of the day, I don’t want to be a spokesperson, but I’m also glad it’s me and not anybody that doesn’t have the support I have.”
A big part of that support is her husband, family and friends, including her best friends Mike and Kathy McCalla, who are also her parents. Another part of that support comes from strangers, many she hasn’t met who have wished her well in some way from near and far.
She herself is ready with encouragement for that next woman who gets a breast cancer diagnosis and unfortunately, Jodie will not be the last. She wants that woman to know there are people out there willing to share their experiences to help, and she is now one of those people taking “extreme ownership” of her unexpected.
“I would talk to anyone about it,” she said, sharing her email address which is firstname.lastname@example.org for those who want to reach out.
While she waits on this current season to pass, Jodie said, “Even if I can help one person a little bit, that makes all the difference.”
Beth Sergent is editor of Ohio Valley Publishing.