Woman lost breasts, hair to cancer, but not spirit

By: Michelle Miller-Carl Journal News Editor
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The one good thing about shaving your head during chemotherapy treatments? It does make getting ready in the morning a lot quicker. “It saves a lot of time,” said Jolene vonMillanich, who shaved her head Saturday in the latest chapter of her breast cancer saga. “There’s no blow drying or straightening. I love it.” VonMillanich, 23, of Auburn, is one of 2.5 million women (and men) across the nation who have or have had breast cancer. After her first chemotherapy treatment earlier this month, vonMillanich’s hair started falling out. So she decided to shave her head — and do it in public. Around 40 friends and family turned out to a fundraising raffle Saturday at The Pink Pearl tattoo shop in Auburn where the winners received prizes — tattoos, massages and the honor of shaving vonMillanich’s head. “It was an empowering experience,” vonMillanich said. “With a cancer diagnosis, there’s not much you can control. You might as well control when you lose your hair.” The $500 raised will go toward transportation and hotel costs for vonMillanich and her mother when they go to UC San Francisco Medical Center for five more rounds of chemo. VonMillanich’s friend Andrea Feil did the head shaving Saturday. “It was pretty emotional and pretty sad. I almost started to cry,” she said. “It was a sad moment to remember everything she’s been through.” VonMillanich’s journey with breast cancer began in 2003, when she was only 17 and felt a lump in her right breast. It was removed and tests revealed it was a phyllodes tumor, a very rare cancer, according to the American Cancer Society. “When I was 17, I was scared. What’s going to happen? The future is so unknown,” VonMillanich said. “It drove me crazy.” The Chana High School grad was attending Western Career College and had to “put everything on hold” during four different lumpectomies. Then in December 2008, her right breast started to grow. “I went from a B cup to a C cup,” she said. “I thought I was going to explode.” In February of this year, vonMillanich had a double mascectomy, removing a tumor from her right breast the size of her fist. “I wasn’t that upset about it. I knew it was coming so I mentally prepared myself,” she said. “But losing part of yourself is always hard.” While she laments not being able to breastfeed someday, she is planning on getting “new boobs” through reconstructive surgery. After the mascectomy her cancer was upgraded to a sarcoma. A PET scan revealed the cancer had spread to other parts of her body, including her lymph nodes and bone. Now, after six years of living with cancer, vonMillanich is receiving chemotherapy treatment for the first time. “She’s an awesome person, and has always been that way,” said Feil, who has known VonMillanich since they were 15. “It’s impreseive how strong she’s been through this whole thing. She’s never complained about any of it. She’s a very strong person and I’m very fortunate to know her.” While the prevelance of breast cancer in women under 40 is low (they make up 5 percent of diagnoses according to the American Cancer Society), tumors may be more aggressive in younger women and harder to catch, since mammograms aren’t normally performed in younger women. Dr. Thomas Roschak, the Auburn oncologist who treats vonMillanich, said her case is “absolutely” an example of why young women should be aware of breast cancer. “Young women should be doing self-examinations and get in to see the doctor for any lump that continues or persists,” he said. VonMillanich says a good support system has carried her though this. Her goal is to go back to school to become a registered nurse. Her mother said it’s Jolene’s positive attitude that will carry her through her cancer struggle. “She’s going to get a better life than what she had before when she’s done with all this,” Denise vonMillanich said. “It’s going to be like the phoenix coming out of the ashes.” Michelle Miller-Carl can be reached at ---------- Breast cancer October is National Breast Cancer Awareness Month. Here's information on breast cancer every woman should know. Reducing your risk - Decrease your daily fat intake - Limit alcohol - Stay physically active Symptoms to look for - Any new, hard lump or thickening in any part of the breast - Change in breast size or shape - Swelling, redness or warmth that does not go away - Pain in one spot that does not vary with your monthly cycle Detection - Obtain regular mammograms starting at age 40. - Obtain annual clinical breast exams - Perform monthly breast self exams - Obtain a risk assessment if cancer runs in your family. - National Breast Cancer Awareness Month (