Jean Sobus was at the prime of her life when things took an unexpected turn. She had recently seen her two children off to college; she and her husband, new empty nesters, were busy renovating local properties; and she had just experienced the adventure of a lifetime: traversing the entire 2,150-mile Appalachian Trail from Georgia to Maine, solo.
“I was feeling super strong. on one occasion, I walked through the night, and covered over sixty miles,” Jean recalls.
Mere months after she returned from her grand adventure, Jean dutifully made an appointment to follow up on two lumps—one under her armpit, the other in her breast (same side)—that had gotten larger during her months on the trail. Shortly afterwards, Jean received a diagnosis of Stage 3 breast cancer, invasive ductal carcinoma.
It was 2012, during the holiday season, when Jean received the diagnosis. Nonetheless, she was determined to celebrate the season to the fullest, attending a lively New Year’s Eve party as she mentally prepared for six months of neoadjuvant chemotherapy, administered prior to surgery in order to shrink a tumor or tumors so that surgery is more effective. In Jean’s case, the tumor under her armpit—characteristic of metastatic cancer that has spread from the breast—was considered inoperable at its original size. One of two tumors found in her breast was more than 5 cm in size, with a high KI67 cell count, indicating a particularly aggressive form of cancer.
Refusing to let chemotherapy wear her down
It’s no secret that chemotherapy’s side effects can wear down patients. Common symptoms include fatigue, nausea and hair loss. Jean did lose her hair. She jokes about the blond wig that she sometimes wore in its place—in spite of, or perhaps because of, the drastically different ‘look’ it gave her, a natural brunette.
In fact, Jean laughs a lot. Cancer didn’t change that. And, in retrospect, she suggests it may have been an effective coping mechanism as she endured chemotherapy. Once, she recalls, her husband and a friend sat with her as she was getting chemotherapy. One of the hospital’s staff members came by and said: “It’s just so nice to hear laughter around here.”
Jean didn’t stop laughing, even during that long bout of chemotherapy. Nor did she stop moving. Instead, she looked for a new physical challenge and conquered it—during chemotherapy. She participated in the Ride for the Feast, a 140-mile bike ride to raise money for Moveable Feast, a nonprofit that feeds people who are sick and in need.
Jean began the ride, which starts in Ocean City, Maryland, wearing her blonde wig. Somewhere along the ride, sweaty and confident, she took it off and finished the ride without it. “When we rode into Baltimore and stopped at Federal Hill, there I was, bald head, jersey on. Some people came up to me and said that I had inspired them to ride next year—that, after seeing me, they had no excuses!”
While Jean’s participation in the 140-mile bike ride was a very public display of her dogged ability to keep moving during chemotherapy, she kept moving in private as well. In fact, Jean says that almost immediately after being administered a dose of chemotherapy, she’d return home and either turn on some music and dance around her house or take a walk.
Choosing her own path
Jean is convinced that movement prevented her from experiencing nausea during chemotherapy. She actually requested that the anti-nausea drugs be removed from the ‘drip bag’ that fed into her body along with the cancer-fighting drugs. And, she’s pleased to report, her oncologist Dr. John Fetting honored her wishes and ordered removal of the anti-nausea drugs when Jean suggested they were having unintended side effects.
“Prior to the first chemo treatment, I was told that I must take the anti-nausea drugs, but I noticed that I felt worse rather than better as I took them. Finally, reading the fine print, I saw that a side effect was the dizzy sick feeling I was experiencing and I never took them again, choosing instead to stay moving. I’d have friends meet me to walk in Meadowood Park, across the street from Johns Hopkins GreenSpring where I was being treated. It was important for me to start moving right away,” Jean says.
It wasn’t the first or the last time Jean would stray from standard protocol during treatment.
Many patients with aggressive breast cancer choose to get a mastectomy. Not Jean. In her research, she read that lumpectomies were the norm in Europe, whereas in the US, mastectomies were more common. Incidentally, the research now shows that there is no statistically significant long-term difference in outcomes.
“I’d consulted with several surgeons and found one who was willing to give lumpectomy a try, and, again, Dr. Fetting was understanding. He wasn’t upset. He said something like ‘Who wouldn’t want to keep their breasts if they could?’ ” recalls Jean.
Another decision was to bypass radiation treatment. After careful research, and asking important questions such as “What would be my death benefit by having this treatment?”, Jean decided against it.
“I’ve been what might be considered a ‘difficult patient. It’s funny, but I’ve read now that difficult patients statistically have a much better chance of survival,” she says.
Today, approximately four years after being diagnosed with advanced breast cancer, Jean shows no evidence of the disease. She continues to live out her life in the best way she knows how, seeking adventure at every turn. Recently, she completed what she considers to be her greatest adventure yet: she thru-hiked the Pacific Crest Trail—2,650 miles—again, solo.
With this hike, admits Jean, she ‘threw caution to the wind’. Despite having developed significant osteoporosis during the course of her treatment, which in turn had adversely affected her spine, causing her to fracture two vertebrae while stretching, Jean decided to go on this next backpacking trip nonetheless. She was extremely careful about weight, cutting out any luxuries and taking only the most lightweight equipment, and keeping the weight on her hips. Ultimately, the load on her back all those miles gave her no trouble and the experience helped her to feel whole, strong and healthy again.
“I thought so many times of people who were going through treatment, and I wanted them to know, that yes, there is life after chemo and diagnosis and you will recover and go on to live your life. I was learning this myself, with every step that I took!” she says.
Jean demonstrates great care when it comes to her health—eating a diet loaded with vegetables and devoid of sugar and other unhealthy substances, and staying physically active outdoors whenever possible. And she makes an effort to balance the realization that her cancer could resurface again with the power of positive thinking, the joy of laughter, and visualizing a full and healthy future.
“I feel really good. I have a lot of energy. I love spending time with my kids and my family. I’m really looking forward to going on some long hikes with my great, great grandchildren,” she says with a grin and a chuckle.
As for her advice to other breast cancer patients? “Educate yourself. And do more of what makes you feel happy,” Jean says.