Hearing you have breast cancer before Christmas is not the kind of news you want to unwrap before the holidays. That is exactly what Tennille Lewis, of North Branch, had to come to terms with over Christmas of 2015.
After finding a pea-size lump in her breast one day, Lewis’s husband told her they were going in.
“So when I found that lump,” she shared, “he said, ‘We are going in now. We aren’t wasting any more time.’”
Lewis got in right away to see a nurse practitioner who ordered a diagnostic mammogram to get a better look at what they were dealing with.
“She said if I wouldn’t have found that lump and gone to my regular mammogram appointment, they would not have caught it,” Lewis said. “She was glad that we did.”
After the diagnostic mammogram confirmed the lump, a biopsy was ordered, and the results came back on Dec. 23 that she had triple negative breast cancer, a rare and aggressive form.
For the next five months – January to May of 2016 – Lewis began a rigorous treatment plan of different chemotherapies that were offered for her type of breast cancer.
“The first chemo didn’t do anything,” she said. “So then we went on to a second type of chemo and then a third to finally shrink it.”
Once the tumor had shrunk to a certain size, Lewis had a nine-hour surgery to remove the tumor, as well as a double mastectomy and hysterectomy.
Infections, surgeries and setbacks
After tackling chemo, a double mastectomy, a hysterectomy and her first round of reconstructive surgery, Lewis was looking forward to finding her new normal.
Then in September of 2016 Lewis went to the emergency room due to some symptoms she was noticing in her left breast. The doctors found that Lewis had an infection from one of the expanders placed in the left breast area for reconstructive surgery.
The infection would cause many issues for the next year.
“They kept me in the hospital for four days and put me on an antibiotic,” Lewis said. “Come to find out (later) this antibiotic for the infection was not working, and so when they thought it went away, it still had kind of stayed in that area, and I ended up getting cellulitis and phlebitis down my left arm.”
Then Lewis received news that the results from one of her pathology reports had come back with what was called ‘residual invasive.’
“I had to be on an oral chemo from January to May of 2017,” she said. “I took 10 pills a day, and it gave me like a hand-foot syndrome where my skin would swell really bad and peel, and I had to soak my hands and feet three times a day and wear gloves constantly. I had to keep my feet covered all the time. That was probably one of the worst chemos.”
All the while, Lewis was still working full-time at a salon in North Branch.
She continued to go in for more surgeries to undertake the slow process of the reconstructive plan – continually receiving setbacks with battling infections through March of 2018.
Since the chemo treatments have made her bone density very low, she will begin bone infusions soon to make her bones stronger. She’s also facing more reconstructive surgery to replace an implant impacted by scar tissue.
Past predicts the future
Lewis knows all too well that her past had predicted her future, in part.
“My mom had actually passed away from this in 1993,” she said. “She was diagnosed when she was 38 years old, and I was diagnosed when I turned 37.”
Back then they didn’t really name the cancer or give it a stage, but Lewis now believes her mother had something similar to what she had.
Thinking back on this, Lewis recalls an important conversation she had with one of her clients while cutting her hair in the salon.
“(The client) told me I should get the genetic testing done,” Lewis said. “But I told her it was too expensive, and I never got it done.”
Not until her diagnosis.
“Had I known that genetic testing can be covered by your insurance I would have done it a long time ago,” Lewis said. “My sister and I had been talking about it for about five years. Since my mother had breast cancer, I was eligible all along to receive this testing.”
During her initial diagnosis period, Lewis did have the testing done and tested for the BRCA gene that increases a person’s chance of getting breast cancer and other forms of cancer.
Right now Lewis is just thankful for all of the outpouring of support she and her family have received the last four years.
“I just really want to thank all my family and friends and coworkers for all the meals and support,” she said.
Lewis also knows she couldn’t have done this without her two boys, Easton (9) and Teegan (14), from a previous relationship, and her husband of six years, Jerry Lewis.
“Jerry was my biggest supporter and encourager who didn’t miss a single doctor appointment through these last four years,” she said.
Together they are running their new business in North Branch called You Got the Look – a salon and personal training business. They eventually want to create a foundation that gives back to those in her situation.
“We want to do free haircuts and things to raise money for wigs, and make meals for families in need that are going through something similar,” she said.
But what she really wants out of all of this is to send an important message.
“I just want people to know that getting genetic testing is available,” she said. “Look into getting it done. My mom lost an aunt and cousin to cancer and then her. It’s one of those things that we put off until we have symptoms, and had I known back then that I had the BRCA gene, I would have maybe prevented all of this stuff I have gone through.”