Jenn Birchal and Pat Murray - Precision Therapy

Jenn Birchall and Pat Murray

Precision Therapy

Four-and-a-half years ago, I had a normal life. I was married to a wonderful man. I had a career that I loved, and many friends. But in December of 2009, I heard the three words that change everything: You have cancer.

After a visit to my family doctor for extreme fatigue, I was referred to the Tom Baker Cancer Centre, and, after a battery of tests, was diagnosed with stage 4 breast cancer. My husband Pat and I learned that it had already spread to my lymph, liver, lungs and bones.

"...Albertans come together to support research so that I’m able – and people like me are able - to receive the newest and most effective treatment options. People don’t realize what it means. I am so thankful."

- Jenn Birchall

Pat: Everything happened so quickly. One moment we are hearing that fateful diagnosis, and the next we had palliative care in our house talking to Jenn, making at-home care arrangements. The moment I saw them in our house, my knees buckled. The reality of the situation sunk in, and it was unbearable.

Jenn: About a week after hearing my diagnosis, I began aggressive chemotherapy at the Tom Baker Cancer Centre. To say that my first rounds were difficult would be an understatement. Before my cancer diagnosis I was a physically fit person—I used to commute on my bicycle from Calgary to Cochrane five days a week. Now, at 43, I could hardly walk from my bedroom to the kitchen.

After going through five and a half months of chemotherapy, as well as a double mastectomy, I took the trip of a lifetime with my dad to Churchill, Manitoba. Seeing the polar bears was honestly the best day of my life. But while away, I experienced a day-long migraine. I scheduled an appointment with my oncologist, Dr. Marc Webster, and, after more tests, learned the cancer had spread to my brain.

Pat: At the beginning of this journey, our focus was to keep Jenn alive. Her original diagnosis of breast cancer that had already spread to lymph, liver, lungs, bones now included her brain. At that point, she had to go for daily full-brain radiation treatments for two weeks. She was devastated. So was I.

Jenn: Until recently, I was undergoing daily chemotherapy and facing possible brain surgery, but fortunately I was able to start a new chemotherapy treatment recently approved in Alberta. TDM-1 is a smart drug that’s able to penetrate the blood brain barrier and specifically target cancer cells while leaving healthy cells alone.

I only need to be at the hospital once every three weeks and it has limited side effects. Dr. Webster told me he is in the business of buying time until the next new treatment - like TDM-1 - is discovered. It gives me hope as my cancer journey continues.

Pat: Jenn’s doctors say she is a medical miracle, but we know she is alive because of the research done before her. We have been introduced to different treatment options and when we saw the world-class care the Tom Baker Cancer Centre offers, we knew we wanted to do something more.

We created the Pink Cup Charity Classic golf tournament as our way of paying it forward. There are not enough adjectives to describe the doctors, nurses and staff at the Tom Baker—there is not one person who hasn’t made an impact or brightened our lives. But, most importantly, we want to support the research that will push us further than ever before. We need to arm the proper teams with the right tools so they can answer questions about cancer. I don’t want anyone to have to go through what we’ve gone through.

Jenn: It’s been humbling to see how my body and mind have changed while going through treatments; how friends, family and people I have never even met have stepped into my life and offered support; how Albertans come together to support research so that I’m able – and people like me are able - to receive the newest and most effective treatment options. People don’t realize what it means; I am so thankful.

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