July 19, 2021 by John Fernandez and Carol Higgins
At 32, She Faced Rare Triple-Negative Breast Cancer: ‘My Story Can Help a Lot of People’
‘Surreal’ is the word Jessica Duemig uses to describe the news that changed her life. “I was 32 with no family history of breast cancer. The diagnosis was such a mind-boggling thing,” she recalls. “I knew that so much was going to change and it was just total overload.”
A stabbing pain in her left breast one morning first alerted Ms. Duemig that something was wrong. Then, a small bump she’d written off as an ingrown hair began to enlarge quickly. A biopsy revealed she had “stage 2a triple-negative metaplastic” breast cancer. Her doctors told her it is very rare. “It only makes up about 1 percent of all breast cancers out there. It’s something that, thankfully, I caught when I did,” she says.
“With any patient presenting with breast cancer, we’re always going for cure. That was our goal for Jessica,” says Starr Mautner, M.D., breast surgeon at Miami Cancer Institute. “We were able to determine that this was still considered early stage cancer, although it was aggressive and needed to be treated aggressively. I told her we were going to do everything in our power to cure this cancer.”
(Watch video now: The Resource team hears from breast cancer patient Jessica Duemig and Starr Mautner, M.D., breast surgeon at Miami Cancer Institute. Video by Carol Higgins.)
Making Major Life Decisions
Facing a double mastectomy and eight rounds of chemotherapy, Ms. Duemig found herself confronted by major life decisions she had to make almost immediately.
“I was single, no kids, never married, growing my career in Miami,” she said. “It was a crazy thing to have to think about all the repercussions down the line. Aside from deciding whether I was going to stay flat or do the implants and the reconstruction, I also had to decide whether or not I wanted to have children. It sounds kind of funny, but at 32 I was getting up there in age. And I had to make a decision whether or not I was going to freeze my eggs.”
Informed that chemotherapy can negatively impact a woman’s ability to conceive naturally, Ms. Duemig turned to the fertility preservation program at Miami Cancer Institute for assistance with freezing her eggs prior to starting her chemo treatments. “Maybe I’ll never use my frozen eggs, but at least I will have the option,” she says.
Helping Others Via Social Media
During the course of her chemotherapy treatments, Ms. Duemig talked about her journey in a series of live social media videos aimed at keeping her friends and family in the loop on her condition. In one, she documented the emotional process of having her head shaved at the Boutique at Miami Cancer Institute.
It wasn’t long before her videos drew a larger following. “I kind of made my own support group, but then it expanded and expanded and I realized this was helping other people too,” she says.
February of this year marked a major milestone: three years since her treatment ended. As Dr. Mautner explains: “If someone with triple negative cancer does not recur within the first two to three years after treatment, most of the time we can confidently say that they are cured. These cancers tend to not recur later on.”
Sharing Her Experience
Ms. Duemig recalls how relieved she was the day her medical oncologist at Miami Cancer Institute, Victor Guardiola, M.D., gave her the good news. “It was so exciting to hear him say you’re cured. It’s something that I replay over and over again in my mind. Because as positive as you try to stay, you don’t want to go through it again.”
Now, to share her experience with others, she has written a book titled, “Warrior.” It offers information, advice and support to other women fighting the disease. Central to her message is the importance of catching cancer early. “One of the biggest points in my book is that you know your body better than anyone else. And even if you’re not sure, if you feel anything that doesn’t feel right, get it checked out.”
Dr. Mautner echoes that advice: “Most women under the age of 40 are not undergoing annual screening mammograms yet, and for these women my message would be know your own body — and if you do detect a mass that you can feel in the breast — do not ignore it.”
When asked about the lessons she learned from her experience with breast cancer, Ms. Duemig points to the importance of a positive attitude.
“I really learned through this that attitude is everything,” she says. “I never at any point in time considered the alternative to surviving and ultimately thriving. Now, I really think that my story can help a lot of people, not only in the early detection conversation, but also in just the general attitude toward breast cancer. It’s not a death sentence anymore.”