Georgia cancer survivor now battles heart disease

It's been almost 28-years since cancer came into Jenifer Reese's life when she was a 19-year old sophomore at Texas Tech.

"I started feeling, really, just kind of like I couldn't get out of bed," Reese remembers. "So, I went to the doctor and they noticed my glands were swollen, and I had some lumps in my neck."

Reese was diagnosed with Hodgkin lymphoma, cancer of the lymph system.

Her cancer was stage 3B, so advanced; she was given an 11 percent chance of survival.

So, she threw herself into treatment, first surgery, then back-to-back radiation treatments for months.

It was grueling.

"I'm about 5'4, and I got down to about 90 pounds," Reese says.

But, Reese survived, married her husband Chris, moved to Sugar Hill, Georgia, and had two now teenage sons.

Then, 3 years ago, she started struggling to catch her breath.

"I could barely just go to work and come home and I had to rest, and I was done," she says.

That's the now 47-year old had her first cancer survivor checkup in decades, at Northside Cancer Center in Atlanta.

She was sent to see cardiologist Dr. Kim Champney.

"And when I did her exam, there were some abnormalities in her exam," Dr. Champney says.  "So, we did an echocardiogram, and that's an ultrasound of her heart."

Reese had several issues.

"I had to have a heart cath, and from the heart cath they found three blockages," she says.  "I (also) have mitral valve regurgitation."

And Reese is far from alone.

There are nearly 17 million cancer survivors in the United States, making up about 5% of the total population.

And, as more people outlive cancers once considered deadly, Dr. Champney says they're finding some of the treatments that helped them beat the odds, can also damage their hearts.

 "So, now we're starting to see some long-term effects, some short-term effects, during treatment and then affects long-term," Champney says.

Not all cancer survivors will experience complications down the road, but radiation, chemotherapy, surgery, and hormone therapy can all cause late side effects years, even decades, later.

"It's very frustrating," Reese says.

Three years ago, she underwent a catheterization to reopened her blocked arteries.

"Going into that procedure was really scary, because before when I was treated for cancer, it was just me," Reese says.  "Now. I have kids. I have a family. I have teenagers at home. I have a husband. It was a lot.  It was a lot to deal with."

And last fall, another Reese had another procedure, this time vascular surgery to reopen a 90% blockage in her right carotid artery, which supplies blood to her brain.

It made a huge difference, she says.

"I felt like 10 pounds was lifted off my chest," Reese says.  "Literally, I could breath."

Jennifer Reese says she is grateful she survived cancer. 

But, she wishes she'd been told earlier about the risks of radiation.

She would've gotten checked, maybe caught these problems sooner.

When she went back and tried to find her medical records, which were paper files, they'd been destroyed.

Her parents have tried to help her fill in the blanks about how many treatments she underwent.

Reese hopes her story will be a warning to other cancer survivors.

"If you've ever had cancer, no matter how long it's been, if you're just recently diagnosed, or if you've been okay for 20 years, talk to your doctor," Reese says.  "Get a cancer care plan.  You need to have a plan because it's not done when you're done with treatment."