Starting a new job is always stressful. Add to that the special challenges faced by a single mother of a young child. If that weren’t enough, add the need to receive life-saving chemotherapy treatments.
Diagnosed with breast cancer only three months earlier, that was the situation 32-year-old Jesse Keiper of Sciota faced in September of 2013.
Jesse’s ordeal began in winter 2013, when she noticed a small lump under her arm while shaving. She didn’t think much about it. While visiting their family doctor for her daughter’s ear infection, Jesse casually mentioned her lump. After a subsequent examination, her physician referred her to the St. Luke’s Regional Breast Cancer Center in Center Valley, where she receive a mammogram, breast ultrasound and biopsy.
When Jesse learned she had breast cancer, her family doctor referred her to a cancer center in Philadelphia. The earliest appointment she could get was two weeks away. Plus, she felt a nagging fear that she wouldn’t be able to care for her 7-year-old daughter Elizabeth, work, and travel two hours each way to get cancer treatment. So, she looked for a better option.
“I did my homework and found surgical oncologist Dr. Lee Riley, who trained at Fox Chase Cancer Center and MD Anderson (University of Texas),” she said. She also learned Dr. Riley serves as Medical Director, Oncology Services of the St. Luke's University Health Network and heads Surgical Research at St. Luke's University Hospital - Bethlehem Campus. Jesse called St. Luke’s Cancer Care Associates and had an appointment, just two days later.
His knowledgeable, but down-to-earth and hopeful demeanor, impressed Jesse. “I asked him what I should do and he said three things: Be happy, do your homework and make a plan,” Jesse says. “It really struck me that ‘be happy’ was the first thing he said.”
Dr. Riley explains that Jesse had triple negative breast cancer, a fast-growing type of the disease that occurs more often in young women and those with a BRCA1 mutation. An inherited genetic disorder, the BRCA1 mutation significantly increases the lifetime risk of developing breast cancer to 65 percent, compared with 12 percent in the general public, and ovarian cancer to 39 percent compared with 1.4 percent.
Genetic testing at St. Luke’s confirmed that Jesse had a BRCA1 mutation. Jesse, whose mother tested negative, assumes the mutation was passed to her from her father, who died when she was young. Her mother believes that his sisters died about the same age Jesse is now, presumably of cancer.
The mother of 7-year-old daughter Elizabeth, Jesse needed to do whatever she could to rid herself of the cancer and reduce the chance of recurrence. She decided to have a double mastectomy following a round of chemotherapy beginning July 1.
“The people who work in the Cancer Center make it the happiest place on earth,” Jesse says of the St. Luke’s Cancer Center at St. Luke’s Anderson Campus. “These people matter big time. They put their hearts and souls into their jobs. Everyone knew my name.”
On Dec. 10, 2013, with the chemotherapy treatment completed, Dr. Riley removed both of Jesse’s breasts along with 19 lymph nodes. The chemotherapy and surgery had done the job; she was free of cancer.
Jesse declined reconstruction surgery, saying, “My daughter needed me,” she says. “I had to be a functioning parent. One surgery was more than enough on my plate at the time.”
Once her chest healed, Jesse began six weeks of daily radiation treatments to further reduce her risk of recurrence. Working in Wind Gap, she was able to hop on Route 33, drive to the St. Luke’s Cancer Center in Bethlehem Township, have her treatment and get back to work within her lunch hour.
Jesse’s quest to be cancer-free wasn’t quite over though. After consulting with gynecologic oncologist Nicholas Taylor, also of St. Luke’s Cancer Care Associates, she opted to have a complete laparoscopic hysterectomy. The surgery was performed on February 6, 2014 and she returned home the same day.
“She had a very tough cancer; she had a dramatic response,” Dr. Riley says. “I hope I can be half as good as people like Jesse. You watch them go through their diagnosis and treatment with such courage. They are the heroes who become role models for others facing cancer. They help so many other people.”
As for Jesse, she feels her cancer journey has forced her to slow down in a good way. She makes time for simple things like taking her daughter to the shore for the first time, going to an Iron Pigs baseball game, and hiking on the McDade Trail of the Delaware Water Gap National Park.
“I’m living my life like a seven-year-old,” she said. “I’m having so much fun. I’m giving my daughter the childhood she deserves and I’m here to help her enjoy it.”