When I was 20 years old, my sister Tracy was diagnosed with breast cancer at age 32. Before that day, I thought only older women got breast cancer. It was incomprehensible to me that my vibrant sister, mom to a one-year-old son, could have it. Our family rallied around Tracy, as did her Young Survival Coalition (YSC) sisters. Ten months after she completed her treatments, we received the devastating news that Tracy’s cancer had come back – and she had stage 4 metastatic breast cancer.
Eight years after my sister’s diagnosis, my two other sisters and I decided to undergo genetic testing to see if we were at high risk for developing breast cancer. Thankfully, my sisters were not, but I found out that I was BRCA1 positive. I had an 87% chance of developing breast cancer in my lifetime!
I had to make some tough choices but because of my connection to YSC, I knew that I had options and that I had someplace to turn for information, guidance, hope and friendship. A few months later, I decided to have a prophylactic bilateral mastectomy with reconstruction. While undergoing tests and preparing for my surgery, I learned the shocking news that not only was I BRCA1 positive, but I already had breast cancer!
Though I had already decided to have the mastectomy, I hadn’t planned on undergoing chemotherapy or having treatments that could impact my fertility. Meanwhile, Tracy’s condition was worsening. Our families – biological and YSC – were by my side in New York as I recovered from surgery and, at the same time, by Tracy’s bedside in New Jersey before she passed away at age 41.
The morning of Tracy’s wake, I was scheduled to have my eggs harvested, a fertility option introduced to me by YSC. I knew Tracy would want me to do whatever I could to preserve my chances of having a baby, so I kept my appointment. That morning, I had seven eggs retrieved. That afternoon, I delivered Tracy’s eulogy. It was one of the hardest days of my life, but I channeled strength from her.
The road back from the death of my sister and my diagnosis and treatment has not been easy. During treatment, my boyfriend found it difficult to cope with my illness and we realized we had vastly different life goals, so our relationship ended and I found myself struggling to stay positive.
Then I was reminded that I had promised a date to the younger brother of a close friend. He had reached out to offer support during my cancer diagnosis, and I was surprised to learn from his mother and sister that he had a crush on me. I was hesitant to go on a date with Kevin, as I was 30 and he was 23. He was just starting his career and life and I was dealing with the loss of my sister, a breakup and CANCER! I weighed 95 pounds, had no hair and my skin was a lovely shade of yellow. What could he possibly see in me and why would he want to get involved with me and all my baggage?
We went to dinner and he wouldn’t stop staring at me. I had chemo the day before, so I was wondering if I was looking extra frail or if my wig was crooked. When I asked, he said, “You’re beautiful! I can’t believe you’re actually here with me!” I decided to lay it all on the line by telling him I wanted marriage, a family and a possible career change, and if he wasn’t ready for these types of things, then we should enjoy the rest of the night and continue our friendship.
Two years later, as I crossed the finish line of my second YSC Tour de Pink, Kevin was waiting for me on bended knee with a beautiful ring, a question and the promise of forever. We were married on June 24, 2012 on a beautiful summer day. EVERYTHING about that day was perfect. We came into our marriage with our eyes wide open and absolutely in love with one another.
Soon after, we tried to start a family, knowing it was going to be hard for us. A year later, we went to my fertility doctor. Another six months of hormone treatments ended in the loss of a fertilized egg, so Kevin and I decided we would use the eggs I had frozen five years earlier.
As I was preparing my body for the egg implantation, I laid in the procedure room with the nurse who originally helped retrieve my eggs. She said “Jamie, I’m so happy I can be here with you today. I know your sister is here with us and we’re all praying for you.”
Out of the seven eggs frozen, only two survived thawing and we were encouraged to use both for the best bet of at least one healthy pregnancy. After two long weeks, Kevin and I headed for a blood test to determine if I was pregnant. A voicemail from the doctor’s office was waiting when we got home. “Congratulations Jamie, you’re pregnant and your HCG hormone level is really high. It’s a healthy pregnancy!” A few weeks later, during an ultrasound, we saw the soft flickers of two hearts beating. I was truly pregnant with two miracles.
We were so happy to learn we were having two little girls, but I also remember lying in bed one night and crying. I was worried that I may have passed along my BRCA gene mutation. Kevin hugged me tight and reminded me that things would be different with our girls. We’re educated about the gene and what it means. Also, medical advances are happening daily. When the time comes, they’ll know all of their options and Kevin and I will be there with them every step of the way.
I continued to ride my bike through the pregnancy, even riding in the 2014 Tour de Pink while seven months pregnant. But a month later, I was placed on bed rest. On November 5, Teresa (Tess) Pleva Nickerson and Graceanne (Gracie) Pleva Nickerson entered the world. Both girls were 4 pounds 11 ounces and 17.5 inches long. Our miracles were finally here and we started our lives as a family of four.
When I was first diagnosed with cancer, I was uncertain about my future. To be here, seven years after my diagnosis, cancer free, married and mama to two of the most amazing beings is all of my dreams come true.
I chose to give back after my experience and support other young women as an YSC Peer Mentor volunteer and State Leader. I also help by raising vital funds to ensure that YSC will be here for the 11,000 young women who will be diagnosed with breast cancer each year. I signed up for my first Tour de Pink in 2010 and I have ridden every year since. It has been an incredible journey. I am excited to participate in YSC’s new South ride in Florida this year!
This ride started as a way to take power back from cancer, but it has turned into so much more. I’m now part of the most amazing, supportive and loving family – the TDP family. I started as a solo rider and now am part of Team Pleva. To date, we have raised more than $100,000 for the organization that was there for my sister, my family and me during the most difficult time of our lives – YSC.
If you are a young woman who has been diagnosed with breast cancer, you can read other stories and share your story. Connect with other survivors and learn about all of the incredible resources available from YSC. If you would like to make an impact, learn about how you can get involved or support YSC with a tax-deductible donation.