#GISDCancerWarrior: Janessa Brewer

Garland ISD is celebrating and honoring breast cancer survivors and fighters during Breast Cancer Awareness Month. In her own words, #GISDCancerWarrior and Kimberlin Academy for Excellence Diagnostician Aide Janessa Brewer details her ongoing journey and offers words of encouragement.

Tell us about your journey.

I was a happy stay-at-home mom with a precious one-year-old baby girl. I had the privilege of watching my niece as well. Our days consisted of going to the zoo, hanging out at the Dallas Arboretum, playing outside, exploring the world around us, napping, eating and crying.

I became pregnant with my son right before my daughter’s first birthday. 

Fast-forward to December 2007. I was in the shower and felt a lump under my armpit. Knowing I was pregnant, I chalked it up to crazy pregnancy stuff. Within a week, it got bigger, and I got concerned. I went to my family practitioner and was examined. He said he felt a lump in my left breast as well. He was sure everything was fine, but wanted me to have a sonogram with a specialist, just in case.

I remember being in the waiting room with women 40-plus years my senior. I thought this was ridiculous. There is not a thing wrong with me. After the doctor examined me, she was concerned and scheduled a biopsy for later that afternoon.

The biopsy was done. The doctor knew it was cancer. Officially, no, but she prepared me for the news I would get the next day. I left feeling like I was in a different world. I was floating outside of my body, going through the motions, but I wasn’t really there. I cried and cried that night, prayed to God and held my baby girl a little tighter.  

The next day, I got the call while at the OBGYN for a standard checkup. It was cancer in both the left breast and the lymph nodes under my left arm. I went to the appointment alone on purpose. I wanted to process this by myself. I left and had the task of telling my family.

Everyone was rocked. The look on my mother's face was one of shock, torment and sadness.  She looked like someone had kicked her in the stomach, knocking all the breath out of her. 

In the next coming days, I was scheduled for a surgery to remove my left breast and the lymph nodes. That surgery never happened due to me being pregnant. They thought it was not safe. That surgeon was fired, and I went with a different team.  

To date, I’ve had a double mastectomy, lymph nodes removed, ovaries removed (my cancer was estrogen positive) and went through menopause naturally at the age of 28. I‘ve had numerous reconstruction surgeries, 16 rounds of chemo—four of which when I was pregnant—and six-and-a-half weeks of radiation.

My son was healthy when he was born, but his lungs were not fully developed. He had to stay eight very long, very stressful days in the NICU. I had to leave my little co-survivor at the hospital and head home. That. Was. Torture. 

After a year of treatment, I was “cured.” That lasted 12 years, during which I lived life hoping not to take one healthy day for granted. I tested negative for both BRCA1 and BRCA2. A new test came out called Breast Next which tested 16 new genes, and as my luck would have it, I indeed had a genetic mutation. It’s called Li-Fraumeni Syndrome. It was such a new development there wasn’t much information about it six years ago. 

In June of last year, I felt a lump in my neck. I was scheduled to go to MD Anderson’s Li-Fraumeni Syndrome clinic as my oncologist wanted me to be in on groundbreaking research. With this pain in my neck, I went to Houston. One day of appointments and a full-body MRI turned into four days and a new cancer diagnosis: secondary cancer, believed to be caused by both my syndrome and the radiation.

I’ve been battling this new cancer for over a year now. In order for me to be considered cured, surgery has to happen. The tumor has situated itself around the carotid artery and the brachial plexus, so no surgeon wants to operate at this point. A surgery at this time could cause a stroke and I would lose absolute function of my left arm. 

Although the tumor shrunk by half after 10 months of chemo, it was destroying my body. The doctors decided chemo was no longer an option, and now I’m on immunotherapy. Fortunately, it’s slowly shrinking the tumor and has no awful side effects.

Every day I open my eyes from sleep, I am relieved God saw it fit to let me live another day. I try to make the very best of each day and do things for my family I wasn’t able to do for 10 months. I am overjoyed to be back at work, around people, albeit in a mask. I thrive when I’m around others. I love my job and I love my co-workers.

What would you like to tell others who are still fighting?

Find a support network. Let others help you. I have a real problem with this, but even I realized I needed help, and others want to help. It feels good to help. Let them. 

I have the biggest and best support network. I could ask for a spaceship, and I’m pretty sure someone would get me one. My kids have been taken care of, food has always been in plentiful supply and lots of words of encouragement and prayers have been said for my healing. You do not have to endure this alone. KEEP FIGHTING. Until you draw your last breath, you are not done. You get knocked down, recover and get back up!

How does it feel to be a survivor?

This is a loaded question. I feel blessed. I know I’m lucky. I don’t let things bother me that would have bothered me years ago. I try to live with no negativity. I know how special life is and I want to live it to its fullest. I love my family and they love me. I know God receives all the glory and He is ultimately in control. I have hope. I know that whatever happens, it will be in His plan and His plan is good.

I also feel guilt. Why did I survive? I have six friends/acquaintances who have lost their battles in the last five months. Four were in their early 40s, just like me. The guilt fuels me to make the most of the days I have been given. It also feels wonderful. I beat it and am currently beating it. This beast tried to take me down, but not today, sucka. Not today.