October 1, 2011

Smarty Warrior: Jen Pagani


On this first day of October, we kick off breast cancer awareness month. When I think of a person in “my world” and breast cancer, the smiling face of Jen Pagani comes to mind. Jen is a celebrity of sorts here in Charlotte as she has been kicking cancer’s bootay for 4 1/2 years. She has been the local and BEAUTIFUL face of breast cancer awareness as she continually rallies the biggest teams for all BC races. Her logo is presh – pink & green, oh so Smarty, and the message is simple – gojengo. Jen Pagani is a powerhouse, prior to cancer she was kicking everyone’s booty at the Harris Y as a personal trainer and a two-time IronMan finisher. Yep, she is a ROCKSTAR and a true warrior in my mind, stronger than I could ever hope to be, physically and mentally.

When we contemplated our Smarty Mom series for the month of October, we invited Jen to share every Saturday with us. Today we meet her as a mom and learn about her initial diagnosis. Next week, we’ll get to know the GoJenGo Foundation, as if she has a lot of spare time balancing her young family, chemo treatments, and oh yeah, saving the rest of the world from breast cancer. But that’s just the kind of woman Jen is. She is a giver and a fighter, and for that, we should all be thankful.

I cannot think of a more inspiring woman to feature this month and we’re thrilled that Jen accepted our invitation. She is going to surprise us with the last two Saturdays in October – we will embrace whatever stories and details that she decides to share. We hope to lift Jen up on this morning of the Susan G Komen, just how she seems to lift up everyone around her with her radiant personality. Go Jen Go.

Let’s get to know this amazing woman and October Smarty Warrior!

Jen’s Smarty Mom Stats

Married to: Joe Pagani, 15 years
Mom of: Rocco (6), Luca (4 “AND A HALF!”)
Years in Charlotte: Since 1994, long enough to consider herself a Charlottean
Diagnosis of cancer: August 1, 2007. Inflammatory Breast Cancer (IBC), HER2NEU Positive, Hormone Negative

What did you do in your previous life pre-kids?

I’ve done a little bit of everything…but my most recent, favorite career, the one I would have stayed in if life hadn’t thrown me a curve ball…I was an endurance sport coach and personal trainer. I loved bringing new people to the sport of triathlon and inspiring people to challenge their physical and mental limits.

Tell us about how you were diagnosed in 2007 after the birth of your second child.

At my 6-week postpartum check-up, I had some redness and swelling in my right breast. My doctor and I agreed to keep an eye on it because I had some difficulty breast-feeding Rocco. At the time, I was totally ignorant that these are frequent but innocuous looking symptoms of IBC. But six weeks later, I could feel and see a huge mass in my breast and I had a feeling of dread deep in my being, despite assurances that it was probably just another little breast-feeding problem. The weekend we celebrated Rocco’s 2nd birthday, real dread set in and I told Joe I was going to the doctor. They squeezed me in on a Monday morning and Joe, myself and the boys went to the appointment together. After the exam, the doctor told me to wait in the room while he made a few calls. He returned, told me he wanted me to be seen right then by another MD and, not to worry, but it was in the Cancer Center. WHAT? When we walked into the waiting room at the Oncologist’s office, I thought “NO WAY!”, I am young, fit (okay, I still needed to drop a little baby weight!), I have a toddler and a baby and I don’t look sick. These people look sick…Two more exams, measurements of the mass, tender looks from the staff and multiple core biopsies followed that afternoon. Late the next day, Joe and I received the diagnosis together. Advanced Breast Cancer, Stage IIIA. Next came scans to see where the disease had spread, chemo to begin immediately followed by surgery and radiation. It was terrifying and devastating. I was told to stop breast-feeding right away. It was a few days before Luca’s 3-month birthday and it changed the course of our lives forever.

How did/do you cope with your treatment having two young children?

I blog – www.gojengo.org. My husband set up a Caringbridge Site. For me, right after diagnosis, I decided to go public with my cancer battle despite being a very private person. I bitch – to my friends, God love ’em!. I exercise. I nap. I get counseling – from the Buddy Kemp Cancer Care House. And when I get overwhelmed and desperately need to renew a sense of optimism and the courage to continue on, I go to the Well of Mercy in Harmony, NC – an inspiring place full of incredible souls.

What has been the biggest help to you as you have endured your ongoing treatments?

Wow, this is a toughy! We are incredibly fortunate so this is hard to narrow down to just one thing. But I think it is the web of support we have been blessed with, a lot of it created by getting the word out about our situation on Caringbridge. My husband, my parents, my mother-in-law, friends, neighbors, the boys’ schools, mother’s of sons’ friends and occasionally strangers who just hear about my struggle – all have given generously, selflessly and continually over the years. I would not still be here if not for all the help with childcare, meals, rides to and from treatment, playdates so I can get my nap…It has taken and takes a community of generous people, I thank God for them everyday.

How has your prognosis changed over the years?

Well, my cancer was advanced at diagnosis, so the prognosis was never great. But my doctors have always cheered me on, reminded me that I am not a statistic and I like proving them right. We have currently exhausted every available treatment, including several experimental ones and are now revisiting some previously tried chemo drugs to see if they can stop the progression. The word “palliative”, as opposed to “potentially curative”, was mentioned for the first time about six weeks ago. We are praying and hopeful that a new drug or treatment will come out in time to make a difference in my life.

What have you shared with your boys?

Different things over the years. They know I have breast cancer, that I am on chemo, again. That I need a nap every day, no matter what. But we have not shared the severity of the current situation or that I might die. I suspect my oldest knows this, but it is not time for that discussion.

What do you fear most?

That once my disease spreads to my vital organs (it is currently in the skin and soft tissues of about 1/3 to 1/2 of my torso and growing), it will spread rapidly and I will not be long for this world. I desperately want to see my boys grow up.

Tell us about the Go Jen Go Foundation – how can we get involved?

The GoJenGo Foundation began as a promise I made to God a couple of years ago. I promised, among other things, that if he spared my life and allowed me more time on this Earth with my family and friends, that I would give back to others and share some of the many blessings we’ve received during our long journey with breast cancer. We have had an incredible outpouring of help, from a huge variety of individuals and groups (like the Prayer Warriors) from far and wide. The help continues and I do not doubt, for one second, that I would have already lost my battle without it. We have this help in part because of our own intiative, we have two sets of grandparents here, we have many friends, we both have colleagues from work and we have some neighbors. Joe has a good job, we have easy access to the internet and great help with childcare (grandparents, playdates and supportive schools). But, even with all of these incredible blessings, it is still hard every single day. The stress continues and sometimes threatens to overwhelm. It is hard to get food bought, meals on the table, errands done…while I frequently feel quite bad, have a zillion md appointments and need to take a daily nap. We juggle the boys schoolwork and activities just like any other family does. And the bills never, ever end.

Joe and I started wondering if it is so hard for us, how are the women who are diagnosed and with fewer or limited resources able to battle BC? Single moms, women without family nearby, women who were already struggling to make ends meet before hearing those terrible words “You have breast cancer”. It has taken us a long while to get our Foundation up and officially running with all the health setbacks I have had. We held fundraisers and starting providing aid (ex. One single mom on chemo couldn’t keep her heat on this past winter without GJG’s help and another single mom with advanced breast cancer needed help to buy her special needs daughter clothes, birthday and Christmas gifts and help with bills) about a year and a half ago. We just received our federal tax exempt status from the IRS and are officially recognized as a charitable organization.

Our mission: GJG F is a non profit institution dedicated to providing financial assistance and emotional support to individuals and families, in North and South Carolina, who are battling breast cancer. We provide aid during diagnosis, treatment and recovery. We also provide financial support to charitable organizations which offer resources and programs aimed at assisting these individuals. Additionally the GJG F promotes awareness of treatment options for individuals diagnosed with inflammatory breast cancer (IBC), provides financial assistance to organizations and medical professionals conducting research for the advancement of inflammatory br cancer diagnosis and treatment.

What advice do you have for other young women about breast health and detection of breast cancer?

Do your monthly BSE’s. Most breast cancers have a very high survival rate if caught early. If you get diagnosed, be your own best advocate. Get a great team of oncologists (mine are some of the very best people I know) and if you know someone who gets diagnosed (and chances are you will, 1 woman in 8 will in her lifetime), reach out!

Thank you, Jen for sharing your intimate thoughts on your breast cancer battle. Let’s chat about you as a mommy and all of your favorite things! What is your favorite family activity?

Either all four of us snuggling (my guys are still young enough to be really great snugglers!) on the couch watching TV or in front of a roaring wood fire, and decorating/celebrating Halloween – we LOVE fall and Halloween!

What is your favorite restaurant to take the whole fam?

Brixx or the Mellow Mushroom – although to Luca’s disappointment, we have NEVER managed to sit IN the bus!), both have pizza and are great for active kids.

What is your favorite date night spot?

DATE NIGHT? WHAT IS A DATE NIGHT?

Favorite thing to do with your girlfriends?

Exercise and gab, at the same time.

Funniest thing your kids have ever said?

I have two boys so the really funny stuff of course cannot be repeated in public.

Favorite birthday party hosted/attended?

Our annual Pumpkin Carving Party, it’s BYOP, we provide the beer and prizes, the kids and adults all get into it!

Best kept secret in Charlotte

Luna’s Living Kitchen, near Atherton Mill. The food is beaucoup healthy, beautifully prepared and an adventure.

Favorite SmartyPhone app?

The Weather Channel, I am addicted to the weather, mainly cause I am always hoping to be surprised by a cool forecast.

Best book you’ve read lately?

An Unlikely Disciple: A Sinner’s Semester at America’s Holiest University by Kevin Roose. A bit outta the box for me, but it really got me thinking.

I could not live without my…

Daily nap and really good coffee.

To make a donation to Jen’s Go Jen Go Komen team, click here.
You can find GoJenGo Foundation on facebook.

1 in 8 women is affected by breast cancer. For more information, go to Charlotte Radiology’s website, http://www.charlotteradiology.com/beatcancer/.

5 Responses

  1. brooke says:

    wow. jen, thank you so much for sharing your story here. you are truly an inspiration. reading about the gojengo foundation brought me to tears – what a promise, what a purpose, so generous, such a gift. will keep you & your family in my prayers.

  2. denise says:

    Jen – i’m inspired by your courage and strength and am honored you shared your story with us. you are in our thoughts and prayers.

  3. Steve says:

    I have had the pleasure of getting to know Jen through her visits to the Well of Mercy. I have to say that she, along with my Sister Becky, who is recovering from a parachuting accident that left her a quadriplegic, are my heroes and role models. Jen exudes positive energy and is such an inspiration to everyone around her. God Bless you Jen and thank you Charlotte Smarty Pants for honoring such a deserving person for your Warrior award. What a great website!

  4. Kay Gulledge says:

    Jen is truly an inspiration to everyone she comes into contact with ! She is such a awesome writer so if you get a chance follow her post on carringbridge ,and you’ll be filled with tears, laughter, and smiles ! She and all of her family have meant so much to so many people, and I’d like to personally say ” thank you ” to Charlotte Smarty Pants for honoring such a deserving person.!

  5. Katie Estridge says:

    Thank you so much for sharing your amazing story Jen! Your blog and CB site brought me to tears! You are incredible. I will and have prayed for you and your family.

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