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A Young Mom’s First-Hand Account Coping with a Rare Cancer Diagnosis

Jena Tracey, 35, shares what it was like persevering through intense treatment for a rare leg sarcoma and what she’s excited for most in the next chapter of her life.

Editor’s note: This article has been updated from an earlier version posted in February 2022.

I pride myself on being very active. I practice yoga and Pilates, and cycle regularly. My two children, Theo and Bennett, are my world. Other than giving birth to them, I had never been admitted to a hospital, had any type of scan, or dealt with any health hurdles – until I had cancer.

My journey with cancer began last spring, when I discovered an unusual lump on the back of my left knee after hopping off my bike. I didn’t think much of it at first. It wasn’t causing me any pain or keeping me from moving, it just felt funny. My husband thought it must’ve been some type of cyst.

Side by side photographs of the lump behind Jena's knee

Jena discovered an unusual bump behind the back of her left knee after hopping off her bike.

Whatever it was, I knew it wasn’t supposed to be there, so I reached out to my sports medicine doctor right away.

An Unexpected Diagnosis

I sought answers through sports medicine, and I had imaging done. It took a few months of advocating for myself, but an MRI finally revealed it was a soft tissue mass. After meeting with an oncologist, I had my answer: this unexpected lump was a rare cancer known as synovial sarcoma.

Jena with her two sons Theo and Bennett

Jena with her sons Theo and Bennett.

I think most people facing a cancer diagnosis will say they’re in shock; this is an understatement. It truly is hard to put into words what goes through your head in that moment. I walked into an appointment, in relatively good health, and I walked out as a cancer patient.

It’s an incredibly pivotal time, figuring out how to cope with cancer while still living your daily life. All I could think about were my family and children. I knew this was about to change my world – for the better or the worse. I chose to focus on the better.

In July, I started six rounds of inpatient chemotherapy at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital, under the care of Dr. Atrayee Basu-Mallick. In three-week increments, I spent five days in the hospital for 24-hour-long infusion. I was away from my family for a total of 34 days. Because of COVID-19 protocols, my kids couldn’t visit, but my husband could. He was my hero. He juggled a full workload, kept the kids safe and entertained and made sure I was well taken care of.

I was fortunate to not endure many side effects from the chemo. I owe this to staying hydrated, working out in between, and resting as much as I could once I got home. I did my best to truly nurture my body with what it needed to rebound.

After chemo, I rested for a few weeks to let it finish doing its job, and then I started 25 sessions of radiation therapy at the Sidney Kimmel Cancer Center – Washington Township with Dr. Tamara LaCouture. After experiencing such an intensive inpatient chemo, this felt easy.

My Cancer Coping Tools

Looking back, it’s hard to believe I underwent all of this. There’s so much fear going into cancer treatment, but I was determined to be the strongest and bravest I’ve ever been.

Jena pictured outside the radiation oncology department in the hospital

Jena outside the Radiation Oncology department at the Sidney Kimmel Cancer Center – Washington Township.

When battling cancer, you enter a sort of “survival mode,” but you also still have to balance other areas of your life. It was inevitably hard on my body – but I knew it was going to be – and I just tried to approach each day as it came, moment by moment.

I also knew that treatment was necessary in order to get better. In the beginning, it took a lot of self-pep talks, telling myself, “You’re going to be OK. You will get through this.” Other people can tell you this, but if you don’t believe it yourself, it’s a lot harder.

Personally, distractions were something I relied heavily on. I knew they’d make the days, however hard, go by faster. Whether it’s working, socializing, or picking up a new hobby, focusing your mind on something else can be incredibly helpful. My job allowed me to work remotely throughout treatment, which kept me busy. I also continued to work out, and through exercising virtually, I connected with an amazing group of people who served as an additional support system.

Additionally, I learned a new way to focus my mind. Meditation was crucial during radiation, which required that I lay completely still. Instead of spending that treatment time with my mind racing, I learned how to clear it. So, essentially my radiation sessions served two healthy purposes – to target my cancer, but also to improve my mental wellness.

Getting the Cancer Out

The only true cure for a synovial sarcoma is surgical removal, so I worked with Dr. John Abraham on my next steps. We opted for the most aggressive approach to be as proactive and preventive as possible. I underwent an eight-hour-long surgery, which not only removed the mass, but also required parts of the main nerve and artery of the leg to be removed and grafted.

Jena Tracey with her son on a boat

Jena with her son.

Three weeks after surgery, I started physical therapy to regain my strength and range of motion. Going from working out vigorously to feeling weak and unable to straighten my leg was frustrating and discouraging. I had never been in that position before, but, thankfully, my team reminded me that progress would come with patience and persistence.

So, I stuck to the routine, which focused a lot on stretching and skin healing, at home and at work, because of the impact of radiation treatments. I was honest when something didn’t feel right, or when an exercise just didn’t work. If you’re open about this, they can alter your routine to be the best possible fit for you. Embrace their help; that’s what they’re there for. Aside from my physical therapists, every single nurse, physician and staff member has helped guide me along the way.

The good news is that I’m back to cycling and Pilates. With only a slight limp, I can accomplish nearly 90% of what I was prior to my cancer; I know I’ll reach 100% soon. But even now, I can tell when I don’t exercise as much as I should.

The best news is that I have no evidence of disease (cancer) – with no other post-op treatment needed – and I’m ready to spend my summer focused on my family. We have a beach house, and I took a leave from work so that I can sit back, refresh and give all my attention back to my children. I know that we’ll never quite go back to the way we were before this experience, but I honestly love who we’ve become. This unexpected chapter of my life is closing, and another, better one is about to begin.

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