Lt. Gov. discusses cancer, surgery and recovery
Published 12:21 pm Monday, January 29, 2024
By Sarah Ladd
Kentucky Lt. Gov. Jacqueline Coleman knew for a long time that one day she might learn cancer was at her door.
Her family history put her on heightened alert — her mother, aunt and cousin all had breast cancer. So she “wasn’t shocked” when, in September, a routine mammogram — her first — concerned her health care provider.
She went for more tests, including an MRI and biopsy. After the biopsy she learned she needed surgery, either way. Her doctors were concerned about several areas, and she was facing “biopsy and remove, biopsy and remove, times four.”
She knew immediately: “I don’t want to live like that.” Without the mastectomy, she faced “scans and screens and biopsies every six months for the rest of my life.”
“In a way, it was almost like I was waiting for this news,” she told the Kentucky Lantern Tuesday during a sit-down interview in her Capitol office. She would eventually undergo a double mastectomy on Dec. 18.
But while she wrapped up the last leg of a statewide campaign alongside Gov. Andy Beshear, Coleman found herself in medical limbo. Screenings and tests defined her personal October and November, even as she debated her opponent on KET, traveled the state meeting voters and celebrating on election night.
Women ages 40-49 should get mammograms every two years, according to the Kentucky Department of Public Health. From age 50 to age 74, they should get the exam every year.
To find out how to get a free or low-cost mammogram or cervical cancer screening through the Kentucky Women’s Cancer Screening Program, call 844-249-0708. Click here for more info.
“I’m going through the end of a campaign, which is … the most intense time and I have all these questions,” she said. “And it was really hard to not know what was going to happen.”
The tests “just kind of get a little bit more invasive each time,” said Coleman, 41. “And of course, it takes time to … do the test, to have them read, to schedule the next one. It’s a frustrating process because you have more questions than answers, it seems, the entire time. But you’re also grateful that your doctors are being so thorough, and making sure to cover all the bases.”
In early December, Coleman was “relieved” to learn she could get a double mastectomy at Baptist Health in Lexington.
“I felt it would be irresponsible to have a three-year-old, and to not be as aggressive as I could be,” she said.
Coleman did not have cancer, but she didn’t know that until after her Dec. 18 surgery when her pathology results came back clean.
“The one place that was a great concern came back benign, but had malignant potential,” she said. “And so I felt like I got ahead of it. And I feel like I made the right decision.”
At the mercy of disease
Coleman is, admittedly, “not the best person about going to the doctor.” But, she said, “I also know that being preventative gives you a chance.”
“When you’re reactive, you’re at the mercy of … .it could be a disease,” she said.
Still, medical issues wait for no one.
“You’re fighting for your life, and you still have to pick the kids up, and you still have to go to the grocery, and you still have to go to work,” Coleman said. “The world doesn’t stop.”
If anything, she said, the whole experience left her with less patience for what she called “petty politics.”
“There are real problems in the world,” she said. “I think about the importance of women being empowered to protect their own health, to be trusted.”
Coleman not alone
After her surgery, Coleman got cards and letters from people all over the state telling her their stories about going through similar health challenges.
“It was a message of: ‘you’re not alone,’” Coleman said. “But it was also a message of reassurance. And it was remarkable.”
Indeed, she wasn’t alone. Cancer is a leading cause of death in Kentucky, which has high rates of breast cancer. In 2021, Kentucky lost more than 10,000 people to cancer, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Breast cancer is second only to lung cancer in its mortality nationwide, according to the American Cancer Society.
Coleman said she finally feels like herself again, and is looking forward to getting back out in communities across Kentucky. And she plans to keep using her story to encourage others to seek preventative care — and to know there is a community of Kentuckians who relate to their journeys.
“I know how alone I felt when I got the news and when I tried to find my way and what was the right path for me,” she said. “And I don’t want other women to feel that way.”