Jen Byles was at the top of her game, setting personal bests in the gym and had just landed her dream job in Sydney before her world came crashing down.
At age 37, she was diagnosed with stage four breast cancer on June 24 last year – despite having no family history of the disease.
“I went into shock and felt completely numb. It was like my body went into survival mode,” the now 38-year-old told FEMAIL.
Nine months prior to diagnosis, Jen experienced tenderness and pain in her left breast and armpit. Sometimes practicing while lying on her stomach was painful.
As the weeks passed, she noticed a small lump on her left breast, but she wasn’t thinking about the “worst case scenario” and supportive friends assured her it “might just be a cyst or adipose tissue.”
It wasn’t until she visited the doctor for an ultrasound, mammogram, and biopsy that she got the life-changing news.
Gym manager Jen Byles was diagnosed with stage four breast cancer last year after noticing a strange recurring pain in her left breast (pictured before the diagnosis)
Now she’s on a mission to make sure others are diligent with breast checks (pictured today)
JEN’S CANCER TIMELINE:
September 2021: Started feeling sharp pain on the left side of her chest
March 2022: Found a lump in her left breast
April: The nodule continued to grow and became very painful
May: Any pressure on the chest, including lying on the stomach, became uncomfortable
May: I got a referral for a mammogram and ultrasound
End of June: Went in for the mammogram and ultrasound, which showed a large mass that needed further investigation
Days later: Biopsy showed the mass was cancerous, doctors thought it was about a second stage
May: MRI and PET scans reveal problems in Jen’s bones and lymphatic system
Mid-May: Biopsies confirm cancer has spread from breast to bone, making it stage four — or incurable
End of May: Jen began her first round of treatment – a 28-day cycle of targeted medication and hormone therapy to put her into chemical menopause
“I remember doing the ultrasound lying down and the young doctor spending a lot of time with the area on my chest. Then she said, ‘I’m going to get the doctor to check, I think we should have a biopsy today,'” Jen recalled.
“Then I started to feel anxious.”
The doctor performed a biopsy on the lump the same day.
The mass under her left nipple had grown to four by three centimeters and days later doctors confirmed it was cancer.
“The doctor called me on Thursday but I missed it, when I picked up on Friday and the receptionist asked me to come in immediately, I started to feel anxious,” she said.
“I went to the appointment alone and the doctor told me I had an invasive carcinoma in my left breast. At this point I was just in shock.
‘I’ve always been an independent, positive, strong, fit and healthy woman, so I thought it would all work out.
“There is no family history of cancer or serious illness. I’ve never had any health problems or even broken a bone.’
At the time, Covid restrictions in Sydney were strict and patients were not allowed to bring others to appointments.
So Jen sat alone with her new GP to process the news – whom she had only seen for two appointments.
What followed was a ‘whirlwind’ of further appointments, tests, biopsies and scans to learn more about the cancer.
Jen explained that testing determined this was not a regular carcinoma – it was a de novo metastatic breast cancer.
“I was told not to Google it because the results are so doom and gloom,” she said.
“De novo basically means I’ve never had cancer and metastatic means it’s stage four.”
Despite the prognosis, she still worked out at the gym two to three times a week.
The mass under her left nipple had grown four by three centimeters and days later doctors confirmed it was cancer
Unfortunately, PET scans revealed that the cancer had moved to her chest, pelvis, and spine
She spent about $2,000 on scans, including the PET scans that showed the cancer had moved to her chest, pelvis, and spine and surgery was not necessary.
Tests also detected the cancer in her lymph nodes.
Jen’s cancer is also hormone positive – meaning one of the most effective ways to stop it is to cut off the body’s supply of estrogen.
As a result, chemotherapy and radiotherapy were also not suitable treatment options.
Instead, she was given drugs to shrink the cancer and prevent it from spreading.
Jen says it was difficult to tell her friends and family about the illness because she is used to being strong
Unfortunately, the cancer is not curable – only manageable – and Jen will have to take medication for the rest of her life.
Due to the type of oral treatment that “turns off” her reproductive system and hormones, Jen will not be able to have her own biological children.
“I was so prepared for physical pain when it comes to treatment, but I wasn’t prepared for the emotional side of things,” she said.
‘We thought we had enough time to freeze eggs, I even went to the IVF clinic to organize it.
She has been placed on targeted treatment after the cancer spread to her bones – she also has to take a single pill to help regulate her hormones
‘The next day I spoke to my doctors and they mutually agreed that it was too risky and that I could choose myself or IVF.
Egg harvesting requires a woman to take hormones — including estrogen that would have fueled the cancer that grows and spreads rapidly.
“They decided there was no time for me, and I’m still processing that grief,” she said.
“I wanted children, but there was no time to store my eggs, which was hard to deal with.”
The daily medication has also put Jen into an early menopause and she is experiencing mood swings, hot flashes and fatigue.
Unfortunately, due to the medication, she will continue to have these side effects for the foreseeable future.
Since the ordeal, Jen has been on a mission to educate others about breast cancer and raise awareness about the disease
What Are the Symptoms of Breast Cancer?
Different people have different breast cancer symptoms. Some people have no signs or symptoms at all.
Some warning signs of breast cancer are:
- New lump in the breast or underarm (armpit)
- Thickening or swelling of part of the breast
- Irritation or dimpling of the breast skin
- Redness or peeling skin in the nipple area or breast
- Nipple retraction or pain in the nipple area
- Nipple discharge other than breast milk, including blood
- Any change in the size or shape of the breast
- Pain in any part of the chest
Keep in mind that these symptoms can occur with other conditions that are not cancer.
Since the ordeal, Jen has been on a mission to educate others about breast cancer and raise awareness about the disease.
She wants women to learn about their breasts and cancer symptoms so they can catch it as early as possible.
She hopes by sharing her story others will be diligent about breast checkups.
Jen is also an ambassador for a new platform My health promisewhich was created to help prevent preventable diseases by linking health services to the community.
My Health Pledge focuses on educating, engaging and encouraging communities, workers and individuals across Australia to take control of their own health outcomes.
“We all have a role to play in reducing the prevalence of preventable diseases,” says founder Michael Chapman.