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Young Survivor Savors Life After Breast Cancer

October 01, 2013

At age 27, Jennifer Tilton had everything going for her. An energetic young teacher, she had just started a new job as the administrator of after-school programs for the Byron Union School District in Discovery Bay. She also was taking night courses to earn her administrative credential. Plus, she had an active social life and close family relationships, with her parents living in Discovery Bay and siblings not too far away.

And then her life turned upside down.

"I found a lump in my right breast," she recalls. "I had never had a mammogram, since I was so young. My regular physician thought it was probably something benign, but he ordered both a mammogram and an ultrasound, because mammograms don't always show things clearly in younger women."

After reviewing the diagnostic screening images, her doctor referred her to William Dugoni, M.D., who is now Medical Director of the Women's Health Program at Washington Township Medical Foundation.

"Dr. Dugoni performed an excisional biopsy, taking out the lump," Tilton explains. "The pathology report came back positive for breast cancer with a diagnosis of infiltrating ductal carcinoma."

Ductal carcinoma is the most common form of breast cancer. Unlike ductal carcinoma in situ, in which the cancer cells are confined within milk ducts in the breast, infiltrating (or invasive) ductal carcinoma involves cancer cells that have broken through the duct walls and moved into the surrounding tissue.

"The margins around the edges of the biopsied tissue weren't 'clean,' so I had to decide between a larger lumpectomy and a mastectomy," Tilton says. "I chose the mastectomy because I wanted to be sure the cancer was all gone. Dr. Dugoni performed the mastectomy in May 2001, and since I planned to have reconstructive surgery later on, they inserted 'tissue expanders' to prepare for the subsequent reconstruction."

Following her mastectomy, Tilton started six months of chemotherapy beginning in June. She underwent reconstructive surgery using saline implants in January 2002. Then in February she started seven weeks of radiation therapy, as well as hormone therapy with tamoxifen that she would continue for five years.

"In December 2003, I opted to have a prophylactic mastectomy on my left breast, followed by reconstructive surgery in March the next year," Tilton notes. "I simply wanted to make sure the cancer wouldn't come back in the other breast. I also later had the saline implants replaced with gel implants."

While many cases of breast cancer in younger women may involve a genetic component, Tilton had no history of breast cancer in any of her first-degree relatives. She also had no other known breast cancer risk factors such as smoking. She decided to use her experience to encourage other women to learn more about breast cancer and take screenings seriously.

"When I was diagnosed with breast cancer, I did drop out of night school for awhile, returning in 2004 to get my administrative credential," she says. "I never stopped working, though, because working with active middle school students provided a welcome distraction. My diagnosis was a wake-up call for many of my female co-workers, and I encouraged them to get checked out. Mammograms aren't necessarily needed for women as young as I was, but I am proof that breast self-exams are still valuable."

Now 39 years old and the principal at Jefferson Middle School in Tracy, Tilton also is proof that there can be a good quality of life after breast cancer. Cancer-free for 12 years, she continues to have chest X-rays every three years. She also sees her regular physician, as well as her plastic surgeon, oncologist and Dr. Dugoni every year for thorough exams. She was married to her husband Paul in 2008, and they are the proud parents of two daughters - Madeline, age 4, and Claire, age 2.

"I met Paul while I was a vice principal at College Park High School in Pleasant Hill and he was an economics and emergency medicine teacher," she says. "He has since gone back into the Army Reserves, where he is a Captain. We weren't sure I could get pregnant, but I had no problems getting pregnant. The girls are the joy of our lives. We were very lucky."