Jenna Skews: a schoolgirl’s courageous journey

This article was first published in Buddies For Life 2012 summer issue. Written by Anelle Hamilton.

When 17-year-old Jenna Skews, a schoolgirl from Johannesburg, felt a lump in her breast she had no idea what the rest of the year had in store for her. She shares her message of recovery and hope with us.

Tell us about your journey to date?

In November last year, during my grade 11 final exams, I felt a lump in my breast. I could easily feel the lump: it was big, movable and a foreigner in my body. My GP told me that ‘it is nothing to worry about but no-one should have a lump in their breast and not know what it is’. I had an ultrasound and they performed a biopsy.

After the procedure, I started my journey with a breast specialist and throughout the year I have come to see her as a Wonder Woman. On the 10th of January, I went into theatre to have the lump removed. A week later, I went for my post op check-up, and my life changed forever!

The lump that had been removed from my left breast was a phyllodes tumour. This appointment required a lot of tissues, as well as numerous calls to friends and family, to gather up my soldiers so I could be strong enough to start my battle. I did not need to have chemotherapy or radiation. However, it was a malignant tumour and I needed a mastectomy.

Being on autopilot

Being only 17 years old, I was advised to have a single mastectomy with immediate reconstruction and reduction on the other breast to create symmetry. I was told this news on Saturday the 14th of January, the following Monday I had to start my matric year with my operation being scheduled that Friday. I had a week of school to prepare myself for my operation and for the fact that I will have to miss the beginning of my final year of school. I had made the decision to only tell my best friend and the head of academics; everyone else thought I was simply getting a dangerous lump removed from my breast. None of the other students knew what was going on.

How could a high school student possibly understand what was happening to me? Furthermore, I was worried about the rumours and I did not want to be known as ‘cancer girl’ or ‘the girl with fake boobs.’

During that long week, I didn’t have time to come to terms with my disease, I simply put myself on autopilot. Then D-day arrived. I was fortunate to have a very strong support system. My friend and family were my foundation of support and my saving grace. The ladies in the ward cheered me up and welcomed me with open arms. Life threw me a curve ball and it was frightening beyond belief!  I received an enormous pair of hospital panties that made me feel ‘sexy’; and the fact that a doctor drew on me with a pen felt like I belonged on an episode of DR. 90210.

My first night out of theatre was the worst night of my life. I was disorientated, exhausted and I felt undignified by the fact that I had to use a bedpan and I felt frustrated as I was incapable of moving. However, I was feeling a lot better the next morning. I could put on my own pjs and wash my hands. Going for a short walk completely changed my mood. I went from feeling frustrated and incapable to feeling positive and on the road to recovery.

I took two weeks of absence from school to recover. Not only was my body healing, I also had to come to terms with losing my womanhood before I had a chance to consider what it meant.

The rumour also started that I had a breast reduction procedure. I was highly agitated at the thought that just because I had been blessed with big boobs, people thought I would miss two weeks of my matric year to receive a breast reduction. I was hurt that my ‘friends’ would say such a thing – they did not know about the monster I was fighting!

The first day I went back to school I came back home exhausted,I was so tired I felt sick to the bone, I didn’t want to move. I realised that I was not ready for an entire day at school. I could not carry my normal school bag as I did not have full mobility of my left arm and carrying, or picking up heavy objects with my right arm was painful.

For a while after my surgery, I was still on autopilot and my friends and family had to deal with my mood swings. I went from feeling happy and positive to being frustrated and sobbing in a space of minutes. At school, I withdrew completely as I didn’t want to be around people that didn’t know what was happening to me – I didn’t want to face the world. I was scared to go out and I was afraid to tell people what I was going through. It is not easy to face the non-understanding eyes of others when you have not accepted the changes of your own body.

Accepting myself

As the year progressed I grew stronger. I have learnt to accept my situation and accept myself with my new body. I substituted one foreign object for another. Even though my implant is foreign, it was part of saving my life so I accept and cherish it as a part of my body.

During the June school holidays, I had my second stage reconstruction. After this operation, I had to re-face some of my previous monsters of accepting my new body image. It was a strange feeling to go back to school and know that, apart from a friend and a teacher or two, no one knew what I had done during my holidays. I discovered new ways to deal with the low and difficult times. Art became my favourite subject and I spent a large portion of my year creating paintings that had been inspired by my surgeries and my emotional journey.

One of the highlights of my year was when I was asked to talk on behalf of Bosom Buddies at the Avon Justine iThemba Walkathon in October. When I presented my speech, I came to the realisation that I should not be ashamed of what I have had to overcome during the year. It became my ‘coming out party’ to be loud and proud about what I had experienced.

I am no longer defined by my journey; however, it will always be a part of me as I walk around every day with pride knowing that I can overcome any challenge and I know that I am stronger now than I have ever been before. I am proud to tell my story with the hope that it will help others!

Do you have a family history of cancer?

I do have a history of cancer in my family but not of the rare phyllodes tumour. However, my grandmother did have pre-menopausal breast cancer.

How has your life changed?

My life had to change and I had to grow up and mature quickly to cope with my disease. However, I do not look at this as a negative thing; I now have a strong sense of who I am and what I stand for.

My life has changed because I am more aware of illnesses, especially cancers; I have discovered that just because I am young does not mean that I am immune to a life-threatening disease. However, I have seen the lack of knowledge in younger generations about illness and cancer.

I have also come to understand the importance of a strong support system! Those who do not wish to support you through your journey, do not deserve to be part of it. I have learnt to look at every situation in a positive light for at the end of every battle you will be stronger and wiser for it. I have likened every journey to this quote by G. K. Chesterton, “An adventure is only an inconvenience rightly considered. An inconvenience is only an adventure wrongly considered.”

What advice can you give other girls/ladies in your position.

I was completely blindsided at the thought of having a malignant tumour at the age of 17; showing that the younger generation is not aware of the possibilities of cancer/illness at a young age. If you do feel a lump then have it checked out.

Ladies who are going through mastectomies, or cancer, my advice is keep strong; don’t give yourself the option of failure. You are worth the fight and the battle! Never back down from your beliefs and never forget that you are beautiful – no matter what!

What are your plans for the future?

Next year I am hoping to go to university and will study Psychology or Education. I am happy to leave school and have the world at my fingertips. Wherever I may go I will always remember what my journey has taught me! I will never lose my new-found passion to help others.

What are phyllodes tumours?

Phyllodes tumours are rare and most are non-cancerous (benign). They get their name from a Greek word that means ‘leaf-like’ because they grow in a leaf-like pattern. They are made up of a mixture of cells from connective (fibrous) tissue and the tissue layer (epithelium) that lines the breast.

There are three main types of phyllodes tumour:

  • Non-cancerous (benign) tumours – these make up about 50-60% of phyllodes tumours.
  • Borderline tumours – these are not yet malignant but are more likely to turn malignant.
  • Cancerous (malignant) tumours – these make up about 20-25% of all phyllodes tumours.

Most benign and borderline phyllodes tumours can be completely cured with treatment. The outlook after treatment for people with malignant tumours is usually very good.

Although phyllodes tumours can affect people of any age, they are most often found in pre-menopausal women between the ages of 40 and 50. They usually only affect one breast although occasionally they can occur in both breasts.

It’s uncommon for phyllodes tumours to spread to other parts of the body. Any spread is more likely to occur with a malignant tumour. A tumour that has spread to another part of the body is known as a secondary cancer or metastasis.