By Steve Blanchard - March 01, 2021
Jill Freire has always been one to take control of a situation. She did exactly that throughout her career as a homicide detective and when she was faced with a cancer diagnosis – twice.
She retired from the force in 2019 and settled into life during a pandemic, taking things one step at a time. That is until she discovered a lump in her breast while showering.
“I’m not the kind of person to overreact,” said Freire, 48. “But I did what you’re not supposed to do, I started searching on Google. I was thinking maybe this was related to pre-menopausal issues like hormonal changes.”
Eventually the lump became uncomfortable and when Freire did finally get a mammogram and ultrasound, her radiologist said things looked suspicious and sent her to a specialist.
“At the time we were in a small town in Georgia and were already making plans to move back home to the Tampa Bay area,” Freire said. “I had been a Moffitt Cancer Center patient before and I knew that’s where I wanted to be treated again.”
In 2016 Freire learned she had liver cancer after taking part in a screening program offered by her employer. She said she didn’t have any symptoms and was surprised at the diagnosis. Her treatment at Moffitt was quick and efficient, she said, adding that she didn’t even undergo chemotherapy for that cancer.
But this next chapter in her cancer journey was different.
“I was surprised to learn that there were so many types of breast cancer,” Freire said. “When I went through my liver cancer treatment it seemed very direct and straightforward. When I learned I had triple negative breast cancer, I wasn’t even sure what that meant.”
"Chemotherapy and surgery are the main treatments for triple negative breast cancer."- Dr. Heather Han, medical oncologist
According to Dr. Heather Han, a medical oncologist in Moffitt’s Department of Breast Oncology, triple negative breast cancer refers to the subtype of breast cancer that tests negative for estrogen receptors, progesterone receptors, as well as HER2. This type is considered more aggressive than other types of breast cancer.
“Chemotherapy and surgery are the main treatments for triple negative breast cancer,” Han said. “But there is ongoing research to find new medications to improve the chance of a cure.”
Freire was surprised to learn that different breast cancers required different treatments.
“It was explained to me that there are types of breast cancer and that the type I have is treated differently,” Freire said. “In May of last year, I had a biopsy of my lymph nodes and had a port put in. I had chemotherapy for five months and then surgery.”
Freire began chemotherapy on June 10 and said that her reaction to it was better than expected. She only experienced slight nausea and wasn’t surprised when she lost her hair. Even Moffitt’s limited visitor policy during the pandemic was a plus for her because it provided her with time to herself.
“I liked the time to myself in the chemo chair, as it made me slow down,” Freire said. “I am a control freak so when I got confirmation that I would lose my hair, shaved my head before my second dose (or infusion) of chemo. My first few doses were challenging but I was blessed that I was retired and didn’t have work or children to manage. It let me focus on healing and that was a gift in a weird way.”
Freire said she put her faith and trust in her doctors and soon learned that her tumor had shrunk to where it was almost impossible to find. She had been told that was the desired response to chemotherapy with triple negative breast cancer, however, doctors still wanted to do surgery, however, because the cancer could still be present but microscopic.
“That’s the protocol so I followed that,” Freire said. “I had a choice between a lumpectomy or a mastectomy. I did the single mastectomy and they also removed a lymph node.”
Her surgery was in December, and at the same time, Freire underwent breast reconstruction.
If things remain on track for Freire, she should complete treatment for her breast cancer this fall. She’s hopeful that it won’t return but plans to maintain regular screenings at Moffitt moving forward.
“I like to say I had the best outcome I could have had,” Freire said. “Now I’m just on maintenance. I’ll get a mammogram every six months on my other breast.”
Freire credits her survival and her successful treatment to early detection – for both her breast and liver cancers. She knows some people prefer to not know about bad news but learning about her health saved her life – twice.
“Fear is a liar,” Freire said. “People can work themselves up mentally into the fear being bigger than what you actually have to deal with. My advice is that if you suspect anything, know it’s not going to get better on its own. Stay current with medical checkups and if you find something, address it.”