Patient Stories

Breast Cancer Survivor

Debra Jarvis

Breast Cancer Survivor


  Debra Jarvis, Seattle, Washington
  • Diagnosed with breast cancer April 2005
  • Treated with mastectomy and chemotherapy

A firm believer in annual mammograms, Debra Jarvis never felt the lump in her breast. “It was sitting on my chest wall, right under my nipple. There’s no way I would have felt it," she says.

Diagnosed with infiltrating ductile carcinoma, Deb knew it wasn’t the worst kind of cancer, and as a chaplain at Seattle Cancer Care Alliance, she was working in a place where she’d seen the finest care given to cancer patients in her 25 years as a health-care chaplain. 

“I also had hundreds if not thousands of fabulous role models for how to do cancer,” Deb says. “And the minute I read that report and realized it was cancer, I thought okay if I’m going to need chemo I’m going to do it like him, if I’m going to do surgery I’m going to do it like her. If things don’t go well and I’m going to end up in hospice… I’m going to do it like her.”


Deb had cancer in several quadrants of her breast that made lumpectomy impossible. She decided to have a mastectomy and her surgeon, Dr. David Byrd, took out several sentinel nodes, finding that one was also positive for cancer.

She could have opted out of chemotherapy treatment after surgery and just taken tamoxifen instead, but Deb wanted to do whatever she could to reduce her chance of having a recurrence and worked with Dr. Hannah Linden, SCCA medical oncologist, for her chemotherapy.

She also chose to continue working while she was having chemotherapy. “You can get amazingly self-absorbed when you have cancer; you sort of can’t help it. But working kept me from doing that… and it was great for me. It was the best thing I could possibly have done.” 

Deb’s patients were also a valuable source of inspiration and support for her during treatment.

“They said, ‘this is what you need to do. Be sure you’re taking this; are you doing this?’ And I discovered that it actually brought us closer as a chaplain and a patient, because when you’re in treatment and you’re getting so much attention from everybody and you can’t do all the things you used to do, it’s easy to feel like you have no value. Suddenly my patients could advise me and give me advice and it really deepened our relationship because we connected to our vulnerabilities.”

Best advice 

“Knowledge is powerful,” Deb says. “Educate yourself. The biggest thing for me was that very first day when I made that initial decision to approach this experience with an attitude of curiosity rather than dread. When you’re curious about your experience it’s a whole new perspective. It’s a whole different thing than if you’re dreading, dreading, dreading. I wondered what it would be like getting a port put in. I wondered what it would be like for my husband. How was he going to cope with this? What will he learn? Then it’s a little more exciting, rather than … you know, horrible.”