WORTHINGTON, Minn. — Leann Jeffers tells people she feels like she had cancer for all of five minutes, but the effects of being diagnosed with breast cancer and going through a double mastectomy will be with her for the rest of her life.
The rural Worthington woman went in for her first mammogram earlier this year, expecting it to be a routine procedure. After all, she felt fine and had no other health issues.
Those reasons were why, at age 42, Jeffers had delayed having the cancer-screening procedure done two years ago, at the age when all women are encouraged to have their first mammogram.
“When I turned 40, I had the mentality that I didn’t need to go in and get a mammogram,” Jeffers shared. “So, I put it off.”
When her 41st birthday rolled around, Jeffers was transitioning from her job at Bedford Tech to her new job at Schaap Sanitation. Again, she decided to delay making the appointment.
Then, with her 42nd birthday approaching, Jeffers said she heard a coworker talking about scheduling her mammogram because she was about to turn 40.
It was time, she figured, and scheduled her mammogram at Sanford Worthington through its online appointment system.
The mammogram went smoothly and Jeffers said she assumed the results would come back fine. That, however, wasn’t the case.
She was first notified of something suspicious through a communication from My Sanford Chart, and was scheduled for a May 4 ultrasound at Sanford to gather additional images.
“They brought in the head radiologist,” Jeffers recalled. “He said there was something on there that didn’t look right.”
The concern prompted Jeffers to call the Edith Sanford Breast Center in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, in hopes they would look at the images. Since she no longer had a primary physician — her former physician had left Sanford Worthington — Jeffers said she took the reins.
Within a week of her ultrasound in Worthington, Jeffers was seen at the Edith Sanford facility for a core biopsy. It was performed the day before her daughter, Ariana’s, senior prom.
“Two days later, I got a call from a nurse navigator,” Jeffers shared.
Having been told by a friend that if a nurse navigator called it was because she had cancer, Jeffers said she panicked when she saw the call come in from the 605 area code.
“It felt like a kick to the stomach,” she said.
After the call, Jeffers drove to the construction site of the new Worthington downtown pavilion, where her husband Chad was working, to share the news with him.
“He said he knew it was something as soon as he saw me drive up,” she said.
It was the start of a whirlwind experience — one that no one ever wants to go through — for Jeffers.
The images and data collected from her mammogram, ultrasound and core biopsy were compiled and shared with a team of Sanford physicians — the best at Sanford, Jeffers said. It was during that discussion that one doctor found something suspicious in another area of Jeffers’ right breast.
“I went back in for a second biopsy two days before my daughter’s (high school) graduation,” Jeffers said. The results confirmed the presence of a second tumor.
Her ultimate diagnosis was invasive ductal carcinoma — invasive meaning the two tumors were in the milk duct but hadn’t broken the wall of the milk duct.
Jeffers underwent a double mastectomy on June 14, during which a third, smaller tumor was discovered in the milk duct, but hadn’t yet reached the wall. That one was considered noninvasive.
“When I had the surgery, they also removed six of my lymph nodes,” Jeffers said. “All of them were clear margins and there was no cancer detected in them.”
As part of the double mastectomy, Jeffers had immediate reconstruction with silicone breast implants and spent one night in the hospital.
“Because I did the double mastectomy, I didn’t need any radiation,” she said, adding that chemotherapy was also not needed.
Jeffers was prescribed a hormone blocker, however, that she will take for the next five years.
“My cancer grew because of my estrogen — I had too high estrogen levels,” she said. “By taking the pill, it is starving any cancer that might be there.”
Jeffers said there is a family history with breast cancer on both her mother’s and father’s sides of the family. Yet, when she inquired about early testing with a former physician, it didn’t seem to be a concern.
“Get the test done,” she encouraged. “It’s not as scary as it sounds. Everyone jokes about how they smoosh them in like little pancakes, but it doesn’t hurt. Go and get it done for all of us Pink Warriors.”
Jeffers said she asked her oncologist how long the cancer may have been present in her breast and was told it was likely there before she turned 40, however it may not have shown up on a mammogram until now.
That’s why women are encouraged to get their first mammogram at age 40. It serves as a basis for future exams and helps detect any new abnormalities.
Jeffers said she will now have to complete an MRI every six years, and said that with the medication she takes for estrogen, there is a “very slight chance” she could get cervical cancer.
She will also have six-month visits with her oncologist for the next two years, followed by annual visits thereafter.
“I’m one of the more fortunate ones,” she said, realizing how lucky she was that the cancer was caught early.
“But it still changes your world,” she added. “It changes your perspective on life. The little things seem trivial now.”
Jeffers and her husband have two children — Ariana, 19, and Jackson, 13. The couple also lost a son 14 years ago to a rare disease when he was just six weeks old.
“We’ve had a lot of hardship in our family,” Jeffers said, noting that she lost her mom when her daughter was six months old. “But, I don’t let those hardships define who I am. They just shape who I am.
“My mom was legally blind and raised me from birth with no eyesight,” she said. “If she can raise a child with no eyesight, walking by faith and not by sight, I can kick cancer’s butt.”