I Will Survive
23-year-old Jamie Workman determinedly faces her third battle with cancer
Though her blonde hair is growing back after yet another round of chemotherapy, Jamie Workman still dons a fuzzy hat with earflaps on cool days. In fact, it’s her signature look at the IU Simon Cancer Center.
Hospital staff adores the wonderful sense of humor and the strong, undeterred spirit of this 23-year-old woman who is fighting breast cancer for the third time.
“Jamie’s our baby,” says Roxanne Dindiyal, clinical research nurse coordinator at Indiana University Health. “We’ve seen her go through a lot. But Jamie hasn’t lost herself in this cancer. She’s never given in to it, and she continues to live the life she is supposed to live.”
Being diagnosed with cancer at such a young age might break down even the strongest of women. Jamie admits she had her moments of difficulty when accepting the diagnosis and all that came with it. But she soldiered on and continued to live life as normally as she could.
Now, Jamie’s courage, strength and optimism are tested yet again.
That can’t be right
Soon after a November 2009 celebration in French Lick for her 21st birthday, Workman found a lump in her left breast.
“It was uncomfortable,” she says. “But I thought it was maybe from drinking too much caffeine.”
By February 2010, the lump was noticeably larger. Jamie asked her mother, Denise Workman, to accompany her to an appointment with the family doctor.
“She pulled her shirt up, and this mass was ungodly,” Denise says. “It was the size of a golf ball.”
The possibility of breast cancer never entered their minds.
“Even the nurses said, ‘It can’t be cancer,’” Denise recalls.
But a few days later, Jamie got the call.
Biopsy results were cancerous.
“I just kept thinking, That can’t be right. I had never heard of anyone as young as me having breast cancer,” Jamie says.
In a fog, she immediately called her mother, a widow since Jamie, her only daughter, was 10 years old.
“My mom was crushed,” Jamie says softly. “We were all so scared. We had never been through anything like this.”
Recalling that phone call still makes Denise’s voice tremble.
“Jamie says, ‘It’s cancer, Mom. And we’re going to take care of it,’” Denise remembers. “I was hysterical. I still am. There’s not a day that goes by that I don’t cry.”
Denise tearfully shared the news with family members, including Jamie’s older brother, David, and her boyfriend, Chris Gardner. They almost couldn’t bring themselves to say the sentence that made people stare wide-eyed in disbelief: “Jamie is 21, and she has breast cancer.”
“I just couldn’t say the words out loud,” Jamie says. “It made it too real.”
Any battle with cancer is a serious one. But for Jamie, the stakes were even higher. Further tests revealed that Jamie had triple-negative breast cancer, a very aggressive, hard-to-treat form that does not respond to hormonal therapy such as Tamoxifen or aromatase inhibitors, Dindiyal says.
Triple-negative breast cancer tests negative for estrogen and progesterone receptors and for the HER2 gene, hence its name. Triple-negative breast cancers, which spread more quickly than other types, tend to occur more often in younger women and African-American women, according to the American Cancer Society.
Within days of the diagnosis, chemotherapy was scheduled.
Still stunned, mother and daughter sat together for the designated three hours of treatment.
In a cozy room where nurses with kind faces offered them comfort, “My mom and I watched TV and we talked,” Jamie recalls of those first trips for chemotherapy. “And we tried not to cry.”
On Good Friday 2010, this petite young woman who loves pranks and animals underwent a mastectomy to remove her left breast. Lymph nodes on the left side were removed as a precaution.
She didn’t exactly allow herself to feel what was happening in her life, Jamie says.
Instead she approached the breast cancer with a mix of stubbornness and some denial about what she faced.
“I was just thinking, I’ll do the surgery and heal, have the reconstruction, and be done with it,” Jamie says.
Her daughter’s amazing attitude toward fighting this nasty disease was not a surprise to Denise.
Since Jamie was a little girl, she has been a competitive spitfire. In fact, everyone who knows and loves her steers clear of moments when Jamie suggests some healthy competition.
“No one in the family plays darts or any kind of board game with her,” Denise says with a laugh. “Jamie refuses to give in.”
With that spirit steadfastly occupying the space in her chest where fear might have moved in, Jamie courageously faced the loss of her breast. After surgery, she patiently and painfully attended physical therapy to regain use of her left arm, which was stiff due to removal of the lymph nodes.
Other women might have looked forward to some pampering after surviving such a trying time, but Jamie is not most women. She reminded everyone of that fact two days after the surgical drain tubes were removed when she gathered loved ones and participated in the Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure.
“Jamie walked the three miles. She’s absolutely amazing,” Denise says proudly. “She’s always smiling, always optimistic.”
Before the cancer, Jamie shared a home with Gardner, a man she has cherished for seven years. She enjoyed tending to their animals –– a dog, a cat, a bearded dragon and an aquarium filled with fish.
And she had loved her job as a receptionist for PEI-Genesis, which she started soon after graduating from Ben Davis High School.
Since her weekly calendar now contained doctor appointments, treatments and tests, Jamie had to eventually resign from her job. But she could pop in occasionally to say hello to former co-workers. And she still had lots of other sources of happiness from her life pre-cancer.
Instead of dwelling on the loss of her work life, her breast and her carefree approach to everyday life, Jamie hurried back to joyful moments with family and friends.
That secret emotional pain she rarely shared with others, however, would bubble into her throat as she dressed to begin the day.
“I didn’t want to look down at my chest for a long time,” Jamie says. “I wore baggy shirts. It was hard to process. It was hard to be uneven.”
When staff and volunteers at Little Red Door Cancer Agency donated a prosthetic and a wig, Jamie happily accepted their act of kindness. Placing the prosthetic in her bra helped her confidence level, and she quietly celebrated the fact that she had not lost her hair during chemotherapy.
Her life was finally getting back to normal.
Before long Jamie noticed an area on the mastectomy scar seemed different. When she placed her fingertips along the area, she felt a lump.
“I decided I would rather be safe than sorry,” she says. “My mom, even though she works third shift, has gone to every single appointment with me. We have a system. She asks the questions, and I write down the answers. Then we talk about it when we get home.”
On a September day in 2011, this mother-daughter team’s faith and strength were tested a second time. The cancer was back.
“Another tumor was already growing on my daughter’s chest,” Denise says. “The doctor said it was growing through the muscle.”
On the way home from that appointment, Denise was so overcome by her breaking heart that she pulled the car off the road. She and her daughter clung to each other and cried, trying to make sense of what they had just heard.
“You can only beat someone down so much,” Jamie says of the emotional ride.
Another surgery was quickly scheduled, followed by more chemotherapy and involvement with the drug Cisplatin.
Until then, Jamie had successfully hidden her breast cancer from the general public. With baggy shirts and an upbeat personality, she had avoided discussing cancer unless she chose to.
But then her hair started to fall out. “I didn’t want people saying, ‘Oh she’s sick.’”
Finding blonde clumps on her pillow was unnerving.
“I didn’t want to keep watching it fall out, little by little,” Jamie says. “I just asked Chris to shave it. No matter what, I was going to be bald. As soon as he shaved it off, I felt better.”
She never wore the wig either.
“Everyone says I have a nice-shaped head.”
What the future holds
Now, Jamie faces a third round with cancer.
“When the doctors did a scan last November, they saw that the cancer was back,” she says. “It’s on my lung too.”
Jamie’s nearly three-year battle with breast cancer had been faced with hope. Gardner stretched out to snore on a cot beside Jamie’s hospital bed after surgeries. They had playfully made each other laugh at home.
But this news –– that the cancer had spread –– made hope harder to find.
“We just sat on the couch and cried,” Jamie says.
She knows that her life would have ended had it not been for the study drugs. She knows that her current definition of life will always be different than how she lived before breast cancer. But none of those changes mean that her life is not still a great one.
Since she prefers to look much more carefully at her blessings instead of focusing on her fear, Jamie points out that she has learned a lot about strength and the strong commitment of those who love her.
“I’ve always been tough, but this has really, really tested me,” she says. “I’ve also learned that I don’t have to be tough all the time. Everyone else is being strong for me. I kind of just channel their strength on some days.”
Jamie is quick to brag on the nurses she has met along the way at IU Health Methodist Hospital and the very special relationships she has built with them.
The presence of this spunky young woman has definitely made an impact on the nursing staff as well, Dindiyal says.
“A lot of prayers have gone up for Jamie. She has touched a lot of hearts.”
Jamie says those on the nursing staff whom she saw every Thursday for months and months are now her family.
“They have watched me grow up for the last two years. They will be at my wedding someday.”
Jamie hopes to be a candidate for a new clinical trial with Dr. Kathy Miller, who is in charge of breast cancer studies at the IU Simon Cancer Center. When she feels stronger, Jamie also hopes to volunteer for Little Red Door.
For now, she’s happy that her hair is long enough to run her fingers through and that it’s suddenly curly too. Even that discovery makes Jamie giggle.
Most of all, Jamie is still very intent on living a normal life like the one she treasured before breast cancer: loving her mom, teasing her brother, playing with her nephew and planning a future with Gardner.
“Some days, I don’t even want to hear the word cancer. I just want to do dishes and laundry and be normal,” she says. “Other days, I want to tell other people that it will be OK. I don’t want this to happen to me for no reason.”