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'I don't want cancer to define me' | Zeeland mom raises awareness about self exams and family history

"I don't want cancer to define me. I want to be Jessica the mom, the business owner, the sister, the daughter."
Credit: Provided

ZEELAND, Mich. — Wednesday marks 25 years that 13 ON YOUR SIDE has observed 13 Friends For Life Day. On the 13th of every month we remind you to do a breast self- exam and remind you to tell your friend to do the same.

That's a message Zeeland mom and business owner Jessica Brouwer wants every woman to take seriously, especially after she found a lump herself.

13 ON YOUR SIDE's Meredith TerHaar sat down to talk with Jessica last week, just days before her double mastectomy. The way this incredible woman is fighting is nothing short of inspirational and awe-inspiring.

"We try to eat the rainbow..." explains Jessica as she slices peppers, apples and cucumbers in her bright, light-filled kitchen.

Jessica has led a healthy and active lifestyle her whole life. "It didn't stop me from getting cancer but it's helping me fight it," she says. 

After urging him to get tested due to family history, Jessica learned in March that her dad was positive for the BRCA 1 gene.

RELATED: A Friend For Life can save your life.

"The BRCA 1 gene is essentially a mutation. All of us have these genes and this one is, for lack of a better term, broken. It makes you have the inability to fight cancer," explains Jessica.

She found a lump during a self exam and was diagnosed with stage 2 breast cancer after a mammogram revealed a second lump and thickening lymph node. She too was positive for BRCA .

"Depending on the studies you look at, potentially women with BRCA 1 have an 87% likelihood of developing breast cancer before they turn 70," explained Dr. Laurie Birkholz, board certified Family Medicine physician and fellowship-trained Women's Health specialist who's office is in Holland.

Jessica's treatment started with chemo and she began losing her hair.

"That was more emotional than I thought. You know hair means a lot to women.  Also for me, I wasn't ready for the mess.  All of a sudden it was like I had 15 pets so it came to the point where it was time to shave it off. My crazy second born said, 'I'll do it mom!'"

There is more treatment to come. After her double mastectomy, radiation, reconstructive surgery and a partial hysterectomy will follow.

"Especially being diagnosed with BRCA, this was my path, from the day I was born. The Lord knew it and he has been preparing me my whole life for this journey. If I can travel this path to make other people aware or be there to help...all three of my sisters have been diagnosed with the BRCA 1 gene. Hopefully I can help them do things that prevent this from being their path," says Jessica. 

Her message for other women is this: "Self exams are a real thing. Don't ignore it (an abnormality). There was a big part of me that wanted to shoo it away."

She says talking with your doctor about your family history is also so important. Dr. Birkholz agrees.

"So often we think of the maternal family history — your mom, your grandmother. But talking about the father's side is equally important," says Dr. Birkholz.

Even in the midst of what is still a long course of treatment, Jessica finds the silver lining. "We got a Jeep because it doesn't matter if my hair gets blown!"   

The laughs turn to tears of love and gratitude when she talks about her husband Ryan. "I couldn't do it without Ryan. He cares for me so deeply and sometimes that's just enough," she says.

"I don't want cancer to define me. I want to be Jessica the mom, the business owner, the sister, the daughter." And the fierce fighter.  

Jessica says through it all she has felt the power of prayer keeping her spirits up. She says she has an army of people praying for her, and we're among them.


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