Triple-negative breast cancer survivor: ‘MD Anderson was the right place for me’
By late 2021, Jennifer Connaly and her husband, Trey, completed five rounds of IVF in the hopes of becoming pregnant with a second child. The process had been unsuccessful, but when she felt a lump in her left breast, she thought it could be a side effect of the medication she had been taking. At an exam with her gynecologist, she asked for a mammogram just to be sure. Jennifer was only 36 years old at the time.
When the mammogram showed a suspicious spot, she underwent a biopsy and ultrasound. Jennifer remembers receiving the call that she had stage II triple-negative breast cancer.
“I was in shock,” Jennifer recalls. “No one in my immediate family had dealt with cancer.”
Jennifer, her husband and her parents gathered and prayed together while they processed the news. She also shared the diagnosis immediately with her 10-year-old son and her niece. One of Jennifer’s family members was an MD Anderson employee and suggested she come to MD Anderson before making any treatment decisions.
“I didn’t know what to expect,” recalls Jennifer. “After my first appointment at MD Anderson, I felt much more confident.”
Navigating breast cancer treatment, complications and work
When Jennifer met with Abenaa Brewster, M.D., she explained that the cancer was aggressive and the treatment would need to be, too. The plan was to start 24 weeks of chemotherapy with concurrent immunotherapy treatments every three weeks.
Unfortunately, Jennifer had a severe reaction to the immunotherapy. She was hospitalized with hemolysis, which is a breakdown of red blood cells. Despite the complications, scans revealed that the treatment was working. The tumor was shrinking.
Jennifer had started a new job near Pasadena, Texas at the time of her diagnosis, so she scheduled her chemotherapy treatments at MD Anderson League City on a Thursday, went to work on Friday, and used the weekend to recover from any side effects she was feeling.
“Chemotherapy was actually the easiest part of treatment for me,” she says. “It’s important to stay on top of medications, especially if you’re dealing with nausea. I had some fatigue, but it was manageable.”
In May 2022, Jennifer underwent a lumpectomy to remove the remaining tumor.
But her complications weren’t over. She had an acute liver injury and developed diabetes as a result of the steroid treatment for the liver injury, which required receiving insulin injections. Jennifer was treated by hepatologist Lan Wang, M.D., and was eventually able to discontinue taking insulin.
The final step in Jennifer’s treatment plan was radiation therapy. But due to previous complications and medications, she was experiencing poor wound healing after surgery. She wasn’t able to start radiation until her wounds were completely healed, which took about four months.
She underwent 30 rounds of daily radiation under the care of Kevin Nead, M.D. Jennifer says the treatment “went rather well” and was able to continue working.
“The staff was amazing. They told me what to expect, played music for me and made me feel so comfortable,” says Jennifer. “I knew at that point that my cancer was gone, and we were just killing any remaining cells, so that helped ease my mind.”
When she finished radiation treatment at the end of November 2022, Jennifer rang the bell at MD Anderson League City to mark the end of her treatment.
Gratitude for family, friends and MD Anderson’s expertise
Jennifer now returns to MD Anderson for follow-up visits every four months. She appreciates being able to ask her care team questions through MyChart between appointments.
“I still have my moments where I get a little scared, but I have to keep my faith,” says Jennifer. “Now, I know what to expect if my cancer ever came back. MD Anderson really cares about their patients, and I know they’re on top of it.”
She also tells the women in her life to get their mammograms and advocate for themselves.
“Don’t be scared to advocate for your health,” says advises. “I saw two doctors who brushed me off before I found one who listened to me and got me a mammogram.”
Jennifer says the strength of her husband, family, God and friends helped her get through the ups and downs of treatment.
“Cancer not only affects the patient; it affects the entire family,” says Jennifer. “My journey was far from easy, but I knew I was in the right place at MD Anderson.”