Support System Helps Woman Thrive During Triple-Negative Breast Cancer Treatment   

Support System Helps Woman Thrive During Triple-Negative Breast Cancer Treatment

Jess Wilkinson and her family

When Jessica (Jess) Wilkinson, 48, of Manahawkin, New Jersey, received a breast cancer diagnosis in September 2020, she knew she was going to need a strong support system — and her family and friends, as well as her breast cancer team at Southern Ocean Medical Center, were there for her every step of the way.

“When I was doing a self-exam, I found a lump in my upper left chest, right near my collarbone,” says Jess. “I went to my OB/GYN, who referred me to a breast surgeon for a biopsy.”

Jess’ biopsy results revealed that she had triple-negative breast cancer — an aggressive type of breast cancer that doesn’t respond to typical therapies used to treat other types of breast cancer.

After meeting with Paul Chung, M.D., hematologist-oncologist at Southern Ocean Medical Center, Jess had some additional testing that yielded outstanding news.

“I had a PET scan to see if the cancer had spread, and it hadn’t,” says Jess. “Since it was contained, my cancer was considered curable; if it had spread, it would have only been treatable.”

With her initial testing complete, Jess then met with Yolanda Tammaro, M.D., a breast surgical oncologist who would eventually perform Jess’ double mastectomy in partnership with plastic surgeon Russell Ashinoff, M.D.

“Dr. Tammaro was my conductor, because she drove the train for me and was the most amazing doctor in my journey,” says Jess. “From my first appointment, I looked forward to going to see her because she brought such a positive outlook. She told me I was going to live, and I was going to be OK.”

Taking the First Steps Toward a Cure

In October 2020, Jess started chemotherapy at Southern Ocean Medical Center to shrink her tumor before her surgery.

“Because triple-negative breast cancer is more aggressive, we took a multi-modality approach to Jess’ treatment,” said Dr. Tammaro. “Our intent was a cure, and we gave it all we had to give.”

Jess’ infusions took approximately 6-8 hours every other Monday, and because of COVID, the hospital was not allowing support people in the infusion center to protect immunocompromised patients.

“Those infusion nurses are angels on earth — I may have been by myself, but I never felt alone,” says Jess. “They saw the fear in me, and they took it all away.”

Jess was prescribed eight rounds of chemotherapy over 16 weeks. During that time, she had a few complications, including a tooth abscess that required emergency surgery on Thanksgiving Day and caused a four-week delay in finishing her chemotherapy treatment.

“I had to be on a liquid diet and lost 12 pounds after my emergency tooth surgery, but the hardest thing was losing my hair,” said Jess. “When it started to fall out, I decided to shave my head myself. I said, ‘I’m taking my hair, not cancer!’”

Determined not to let cancer take over her body — or her life — Jess continued to work throughout her chemotherapy treatment. 

“I focused on having a positive mindset, and it helped me thrive,” said Jess. “I didn’t want to be one of those people who couldn’t see the light at the end of the tunnel.”

And when she finished her chemotherapy in February 2021 and rang the bell, she may have been alone — but when she walked out of the building, she was surrounded by family and friends holding signs, screaming, chanting, and wearing matching T-shirts that said, “Don’t Mess With Jess.”

Supporters of Jess Wilkinson standing with signs that say 'Don’t Mess With Jess' to support her cancer treatment

“It was huge to have so many people there to lift me up,” says Jess.

Healing Through Surgery and Reconstruction

With her first course of chemotherapy complete, Jess underwent her double mastectomy procedure with immediate breast reconstruction in March 2021 at Ocean University Medical Center.

“I performed a skin-sparing mastectomy procedure to save as much skin as possible, which would help with Jess’ reconstruction,” said Dr. Tammaro.

While still in the operating room for her mastectomy, Dr. Ashinoff placed expanders that would be gradually filled with saline to create space for her breast implants.

“I mostly just felt sore, and I didn’t need any pain medication,” says Jess, who stayed in the hospital overnight after her mastectomy.

After returning home, Jess received more good news: All the lymph nodes Dr. Tammaro removed during surgery tested negative for cancer. And, her follow-up scans revealed very few remaining cancer cells, so she didn’t need radiation treatment.

In April 2021, Jess started a six-month regimen of oral chemotherapy to reduce the chances of her cancer coming back. Jess had her second reconstructive surgery in November 2021 to place her permanent breast implants, and in December 2022, she had a procedure to fill in tissue from her upper chest that was removed during surgery.

“The surgery to put in my implants was simple, and it was so healing to feel like a woman again,” said Jess.

Guidance from a Trusted Team

Today, after a two-year journey, Jess is cured. She takes no medications, exercises regularly, and has changed her diet to include more organic and plant-based foods. She will need annual scans for the rest of her life to check for signs of recurrence.

Jess said her experience taught her a lot about self-care, and she is so grateful for the support she received — particularly from her children, her boyfriend, her mom, her sister, her ex-husband, and her friends.

“As a single mom, I was used to doing it all, but I learned during my treatment that it’s OK to put my stubbornness down, accept help, and listen to my body when I need to rest,” says Jess.

She said the beginning of her journey was the hardest because she had no idea what to do next — but she got through each stage of her treatment by staying positive, focusing on what she needed to do, and allowing her doctors to guide her.

“I trusted my team and they saved my life, so I never want to go anywhere else,” says Jess. “I’m their patient for life.”

Next Steps & Resources:

The material provided through HealthU is intended to be used as general information only and should not replace the advice of your physician. Always consult your physician for individual care.



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