Now cancer-free, Jenn Buker gives back

MIDDLEBURY — Jenn Buker on Monday reflected back to 2002, the most tumultuous year of her life.
The Lincoln native’s world that summer had been turned upside down by four soul-searing words delivered clinically through a telephone line by her physician.
“You have breast cancer.”
Sixteen years, a double-mastectomy, two sons, and a divorce later, Buker is not only healthy, she’s left an enduring legacy for fellow breast cancer survivors: The knowledge that while a disease might have robbed them of their ability to nurse, their babies needn’t go without a mother’s milk.
Buker’s health scare began during her mid-20s, when she discovered a pea-sized lump in her left breast during a self-exam.
She said she reminded doctors about the mystery lump during her regular annual physicals. But the docs at the time didn’t raise any red flags, and Buker was intimidated by the prospect of someone sticking a needle into her breast to take out a sample of the lump for analysis.
“I didn’t think much of it,” Buker said of the lump. “When you’re in your 20s, you really don’t think about the ‘C’ word.”
Fast forward around five years. Buker was 31 and residing Del Rio, Texas, with her future husband, a U.S. Air Force pilot in training. There were an abundance of voluptuous women in the area, according to Buker, and breast augmentation appeared to be the norm.
“I was kind of joking around one day and said, ‘I think I’m going to get some fake boobs,’” she recalled with a chuckle.
Her now ex-husband Brandon called her bluff.
“He said, ‘Well, if you want to do it, I’ll pay for it,’” Buker said.
So she went for a consultation with a surgeon. It was during that visit, in 2002, that Buker decided she’d take a pass on a “boob job,” but the surgeon advised her to have the lump removed from her left breast.
Buker had the biopsy done on the pea-sized growth in July of 2002.
A week later, her physician delivered the news no one wants to hear.
“He said “Jennifer, I really hate to tell you this over the phone, but you have breast cancer,’” Buker said, her eyes pooling from her mental replay of that terrible call.
“It was literally like a punch in the face,” she said. “I immediately burst into tears. I can literally remember exactly where I was standing in front of my desk… It was a lot of information I wasn’t prepared to listen to.”
She began processing the information through a fog of incredulity. She had a condition known as “ductal carcinoma in side shoe,” meaning a very early stage of cancer. Of chief concern: The tumor had “dirty margins,” indicating this was a tricky medical situation.
A subsequent exam and biopsy further clarified the situation. It turned out that while the lump itself was benign, the breast tissue underneath was cancerous.
A vivacious and positive person by nature, Buker knew she wasn’t going to wallow in self-pity.
She decided to be proactive about her condition and recovery process.
“I’m a fixer,” she said.
And the safest fix, according to her physician, was a mastectomy.
“I thought, ‘Wow, that’s a really big deal,’” Buker recalled. “But I’ll still have one breast and will still be able to breast feed.”
Still, Buker sought a second opinion from a different physician who reviewed her medical records and pitched an even more severe course of action.
“He said, ‘I’m going to recommend a double mastectomy,’” she recalled.
Buker took the advice. Surgeons removed both her breasts, immediately replacing them with implants.
“It was the hardest decision I had ever had to make,” Buker said.
“I was a 31-year-old woman that just had removed the thing that defines you as a woman, and as a mother.”
But as the Iranian poet Saadi said, “The rose and the thorn and sorrow and gladness are linked together.”
Two weeks after losing her breasts, Buker learned she’d be gaining a child.
A month after her operation, on Oct. 31, 2002, she and her longtime boyfriend married.
“All of a sudden, we were dealing with these big, grownup issues,” Buker said.
But Buker’s rollercoaster ride was far from over. And this time the tracks took another nosedive.
Three weeks after saying, ‘I do,’” Buker miscarried.
Again, clouds had blotted out a ray of sunshine during this stormy period of her life.
Always trying to see the glass as half full, Buker was heartened by the knowledge she could get pregnant — and did, again, in April of the following year (2003). When it was clear she was going to keep this baby, a son she and her husband would name Grayson, Buker turned her attention to how she’d feed her first-born.
She knew that breast milk was the most natural and nutritious thing she could give her child, but didn’t have a way of providing it herself.
“I was at a point where, ‘How am I going to breast feed, because I don’t have any nipples?’” she said.
One of her mom’s friends, a lactation consultant, told her about seven facilities nationwide that store and sell surplus mother’s milk for parents unable to produce their own. Buker immediately looked into her chances of making some withdrawals, but at $3.25 an ounce, she knew it was out of her price range. Her health insurance company had denied her coverage for the milk purchases, stating it “wasn’t considered medically necessary.”
So Buker faced paying for the mom’s milk on her own dime. And considering a healthy, growing baby can consume around 32 ounces daily, she was looking at a tab of more than $17,000 for a six-month supply.
Undaunted, she launched a (now-defunct) website called “feedmybaby.com” that featured her story and a request for donations to pay for a three-week supply of mother’s milk.
Her appeal touched hearts throughout the country. She shared her story with newspapers like the Wall Street Journal, People magazine, and TV shows that included “Good Morning America.”
“It just exploded,” Buker said.
The publicity didn’t really translate into a financial windfall. But it did result in many offers of surplus milk from nursing mothers far and wide.
These “milk mommas,” as Buker called them, were more than happy to go through the careful screening process to make sure their milk was appropriate for Grayson. Several donors even covered the costs of packaging the milk in dry ice and sending it to Buker.
“The response was insane,” she said of the milk donations that poured in so steadily, she had to buy a large freezer to store it all. Forty moms ultimately pumped surplus milk into Buker’s supply. One of them was a surrogate mom whose breast milk wasn’t desired by the parents of the child she bore. Another mom came over to personally breastfeed Preston, her second child, born in December of 2004.
“I sat there just next to her, crying tears all over (Preston),” Buker said. “It mattered so much to me; it probably mattered more because I couldn’t do it.”
She’s still friends with a couple of those moms and occasionally visits with them. Buker ended up moving back to Lincoln in 2006.
So abundant was the milk supply that Grayson consumed only breast milk for all but one of his first 52 weeks. The donations continued during Preston’s infancy.
“The generosity of the time and the love to donate milk to another mom that couldn’t (nurse) was truly staggering,” Buker said, wiping tears from her face. “I couldn’t thank them enough.”
Buker, now 47, runs Pro Skin Studio, a Middlebury business that offers a range of dermatological services, like peels, waxing and massage. She wants to help other women battling breast cancer, so her business is donating $16 (a dollar for every year she’s been cancer-free) per 90-minute treatment to the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation during the entire month of October, which is National Breast Cancer Awareness Month.
Grayson and Preston are currently on the cusp on 15 and 14 years old, respectively. She hopes the experience of having had milk mommas makes them better husbands and fathers.
“I hope they think about this when they’re dads and that they’re able to support their wives in being able to breastfeed,” Buker said.
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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