Jennifer Wynn was opening presents with her husband Mark and their two daughters Natalie and Lauren this past Christmas.
Natalie was sitting on Jennifer’s lap and tried pushing herself up her mom’s body, which drove a sharp pain into Jennifer’s chest.
“We were opening presents at Christmas time and she had kind of scooted down in my lap and had used her head to kind of push back against my chest to boost herself back up in my lap and when she did, she hit a spot that hurt so bad, I honestly almost threw her across the room instantly,” Jennifer said.
Jennifer, a full-time graduate nursing student at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, knew something wasn’t right. A few days later, she found a lump on her breast, furthering her suspicions.
However, the stress of the holiday’s, being a full-time graduate nursing student working her clinical’s while also being a mom of two, led to the lump and pain taking a back seat.
“It was the holidays and the stress of being a full-time student while working and being a mom and then you can get sore at that time of the month so I wanted to make sure it wasn’t the stress of that,” Jennifer said.
The holidays passed, but the pain and lump didn’t go away, leading Jennifer to take action and make an appointment with the doctor.
Two months later, in February, Jennifer got the call that changed her life forever.
“My husband was over in the pasture with the cattle, working, and I was in our garden because we try to grow about an acre of organic produce on our family farm when I got the call, telling me I had breast cancer,” Jennifer recalled. “I hit my knees and prayed. I told God I didn’t know what he was doing, I didn’t understand it, but I knew it was his will and he would get me through it.”
She walked across the farm and gave Mark the news which made him think about an earlier watershed moment in his wife’s life.
“I think the biggest dynamic of it was when she was 21 years old, she was involved in a terrible motorcycle accident which almost killed her and she has nine screws and plates in her pelvis so we weren’t even supposed to have children,” Mark said. “She’s already been at the edge of the 6-footer before so when the cancer came, it was a double-edge blow. It didn’t seem fair but there again you don’t want to question God but it was like good grief.”
The Wynn’s discovered Jennifer’s tumor was both estrogen and progesterone and HER-2 positive, making it a triple positive breast cancer, a rare occurrence.
While no doubt a devastating blow, the Wynn’s upbringings and time spent in the Marines — Mark had done two tours of duty in Iraq and is a Bronze Star recipient — got them through the initial gut punch.
“They say there’s no testimony without the test and Satan will send his whole army at you when the Lord is fighting for you the most and I truly believe that’s what this was for us in more fashions than you can ever count,” Jennifer said.
Mark added, “We started thinking about the affliction of Paul and Jesus Christ and how they were afflicted and suffered their whole lives.”
Despite the diagnosis, Jennifer stayed the academic course. The week leading up to her mastectomy, Jennifer worked nearly around the clock to finish her 120 clinical hours.
“I didn’t know how that was going to work out because it’s easy to sit in bed, type papers and do the research but to go out and practice was much harder,” Jennifer said.
After her mastectomy, Jennifer got right back to work, despite having four Jackson-Pratt — a medical device used as a post-operative drain for collecting bodily fluids from surgical sites — inserted into her chest.
“I completed my last eight hours with my JP drain tucked up underneath my shirt and my white doctors coat tucked over it, praying the blood didn’t leak out on my white coat,” Jennifer recalled, laughing.
Keeping such a busy schedule going through her battle, left Jennifer with very few opportunities to look for lessons and perspectives. However, she’s used to breaking molds and used the opportunity to do the same.
“I like to say when you won’t slow down, God will slow you down,” Jennifer said. “I am absolutely one of those that wouldn’t slow down. I was working full-time hours as a trauma nurse, I was a full-time graduate student driving an hour or two each time and it slowed me down. I do think now, looking back, that was part of his plan. I understand now what I didn’t understand back then. Before, I looked at it as I’ve got to go out and cure everybody but now, I want to go camping with my family.”
“Life is not about the hustle and the bustle and grind. That’s one of the biggest changes in perspective this has helped me gain.”
Breast cancer doesn’t only effect the ill. While those close to Jennifer may have not gone through the surgeries, chemo sessions or multiple IV infusions Jennifer still requires — not to mention the near fatal mold infection Jennifer developed during the reconstruction process — but they have been on the emotional frontlines, standing side by side with Jennifer throughout the process.
Mark, who served two tours of active duty, mainly in Fallujah, Iraq, suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder. In fact, it’s why the Wynn’s moved to Caswell to get Mark away from triggers and out to the county’s peaceful countryside.
Throughout his fight, Jennifer has remained steady in her dedication and Mark was there to pay Jennifer’s support forward during her time of need.
“Knowing what she had to go through with me, with my psychological and physical symptoms, then it’s exact role reversal where I’m having to help her with things,” Mark said. “She’s having to get infusions at home for antibiotics so we have to get IV’s started, it’s a wide-open experience.”
Adding to Jennifer and Mark’s experience was figuring out how to break the news to their daughters Lauren, Natalee and Taylor.
It was a fine line for the Wynn’s to walk as they had to find a way to be honest with their children about what was going on without letting them in on the life-and-death aspects of the situation.
“Trying to be honest without being deceptive, that was the hardest part,” Mark said. “You can’t tell them everything but they have to know something. Mom is sick and that’s why she has to have a port hanging out of her arm, why she had drains that needed draining every morning.”
Jennifer added, “I’ve got a little girl that’s going through puberty right now and just at the beginning of it and just trying to teach her the importance that girls have to wear undergarments under their shirts for certain reasons and then she says things like, ‘Mom, you need to be an example and wear bras everyday too and I have to explain, ‘Honey, mom doesn’t need to wear a bra anymore. She’s not trying to be malicious or mean, but just having that brutal childhood honesty.”
Along with their faith, the Wynn’s have also relied on the strength of community as Jennifer is still undergoing treatments.
“We were trying to maintain normalcy for the kids the best we could but in the beginning, we had tons of friends and co-workers and church members were coming out in every direction and I didn’t know what to do,” Jennifer said, smiling, tearing up a bit. “I told everyone of them that I really appreciated it but I’m trying to figure out how to maintain normalcy for my children as long as possible because we didn’t know everything and how things were going to turn out, we still don’t. I’m still getting IV infusions every three weeks until the end of April.”
According to Jennifer and Mark, Steve Carter, principal at South Elementary — along with rest of the staff — and Beaver Creek BBQ in Prospect Hill have shown their solidarity.
“I think that God is still working and bringing us all together because the foundation is always stronger with more rocks and we have so many wonderful people, even though we’re new to the community, the support we’ve received in the community has been amazing,” Mark said. “The mailman, even though we don’t know him, when he found out, he started bringing the mail to the door. It’s just not one person you’re able to lean on but a whole community.”
Jennifer concluded, “From the teamwork aspect, it was bigger than just him and I being a team. They say it takes a village to raise children and that’s the truth and our village definitely showed themselves during this time.”