Her diagnosis: In 1994, Jennifer Morgan-Petgrave wasted no time seeking medical attention when her left breast looked swollen and she started to have pain in her breast, back and shoulder. She was only 34 at the time, and physicians in her home country of Jamaica resisted sending her for a mammogram because of her young age. But Morgan-Petgrave insisted: She’d cared for a friend who passed away from advanced breast cancer that wasn’t diagnosed quickly.
An eventual mammogram and ultrasound showed some possible areas of concern, but she was told that was probably due to hormonal shifts in her body. “I was very uncomfortable with that because of the experience with my friend,” says Morgan-Petgrave, who moved to New Rochelle in 2000. “Her misdiagnosis was similar, and when they finally diagnosed her, it was too late.”
Breast cancer: Survivors pay it forward
So she fought to have a sample of the worrisome breast tissue removed and tested. Two weeks later, her doctor called her into the office. “He told me he was shocked because the tissue looked clean to him, but I had breast cancer.”
Thankfully, it was Stage One and not an aggressive form of the disease. She was advised to undergo a mastectomy, otherwise, the surgeon worried that some malignant cells would remain. “The cancer was found under my nipple. It was actually hidden – that’s why it was not apparent,” she says. “If we did a lumpectomy, we wouldn’t be sure we got everything.”
Back then, reconstructive surgery wasn’t as advanced as it is today, so Morgan-Petgrave had some misgivings. She soon put them aside, however, and went ahead with the operation. “I said I am not defined by my breasts. So even though I was pretty young, I said I am not taking any chances.” After that, her oncologist said chemotherapy and radiation weren’t necessary, but recommended that she take the cancer-fighting drug Tamoxifen for five years. Morgan-Petgrave travelled to New York’s Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center for a second opinion about treatment, and doctors there agreed with that plan. “That put my mind at ease,” she says.
Paying it forward: Reach To Recover
While in the hospital awaiting surgery, Morgan-Petgrave was visited by two volunteers from the Jamaica Cancer Society. The women answered intimate questions about their own mastectomies and living with breast cancer, providing hope that she, too, would survive — and thrive. “When they shared their stories with me, they took away my fear,” she says.
The visit made such an impact that Morgan-Petgrave offered to help at the organization just three months later; she served in the Reach to Recovery program, in which newly diagnosed breast cancer patients are matched with a trained survivor who gives one-on-one support over the phone or in person.
After moving to the United States, she continued with that work out of the American Cancer Society’s White Plains office. Morgan-Petgrave was also among the first in the local area to become a Cancer Resource Volunteer when that program began in Westchester in 2006. She and other volunteers meet with patients and their caregivers on site at treatment facilities, guiding them through the many resources available through the society. Right now, these volunteers are at White Plains Hospital, Northern Westchester Hospital, Westchester Medical Center, Montefiore New Rochelle Hospital, St. John’s Riverside Hospital and 21st Century Oncology.
In addition, Morgan-Petgrave volunteers with the Organization for International Development, a Bronx-based charity that provides medical services to underserved communities in the United States and overseas. She’s particularly passionate about passing along information about early breast cancer detection and improved treatments to African-American women, since that minority group has a higher mortality rate.
“All my patients are like my family. I just love them,” she says. “The stories we share with each other just inspire me to help one more person.” Indeed, after assisting those with cancer for more than two decades, Morgan-Petgrave has no intention of slowing down. “This is something in my DNA,” she says. “As a little girl, I was taught to give back. I was in a big family and we were taught to care for each other, and by extension, for people in the community.” Aiding others, she adds, is “going to be a lifelong mission.”
Breast cancer survivor Jennifer Morgan-Petgrave of New Rochelle has served as a volunteer for the American Cancer Society for the last 15 years where she meets with newly diagnosed breast cancer patients to offer support. Video by Tania Savayan