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The road to recovery — how one physician focused on the good through her breast cancer journey

by Yvonne Taunton

cancer survivor Dr. Jennifer Hanna, MD
A UAB physician-turned-patient reflects on her journey to healing and recovery from breast cancer for National Cancer Survivors Day.

On Dec. 19, 2019, Jennifer Hanna, M.D., Clinical assistant professor in the Division of General Internal Medicine and Hospitalist with UAB Hospital Medicine at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, was diagnosed with breast cancer after a biopsy for abnormal calcifications.  

“With two different sites of cancer in the same breast, at 42 years old with two young daughters — ages 9 and 11 — at home, as a practicing physician myself, and as a highly competitive triathlete with hopes of qualifying for Half Ironman World Championships, I decided the best treatment plan for me was a surgical one,” Hanna said.

Hanna received all her treatment at UAB under the care of both Rachael Lancaster, M.D., assistant professor of surgery within the UAB Division of Surgical Oncology, and Jobe Fix, M.D., professor in UAB Surgery’s Division of Plastic Surgery.

“I had a bilateral mastectomy on Jan. 22, 2020, just three days after my youngest daughter’s ninth birthday,” Hanna said. “Unfortunately, due to my body type, Dr. Fix’s team was unable to start the breast reconstruction process at that time, and I ended up with loss of tissue blood supply that caused me to spend 10 days — two hours a day in UAB’s hyperbaric oxygen chamber.”

Hanna says the type of breast reconstruction she chose was a process that involved three surgeries in preparation for implants. Overall, she had five surgeries spanning eight months, all in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic.  

“The care, compassion and support I received at UAB — from nurses to anesthesiologists, to residents, to the attending surgeons, was simply unparalleled,” Hanna said. “The surgical route that I chose, and moreover the type of breast reconstruction I chose, was more involved than most breast cancer/reconstruction cases. However, as I advocated for myself based on my research, my body type and my competitive racing goals, I was met by encouragement on every side. That was really important to me.”

“The care, compassion and support I received at UAB — from nurses to anesthesiologists, to residents, to the attending surgeons, was simply unparalleled.”
Dr. Jennifer Hanna, MD

Recovery since Hanna’s breast reconstruction in August of 2020 has been a challenging but incredible personal journey. After such a prolonged surgical course, Hanna had been out of the water (swimming) for a while.   

“When I was able to start back — as you can probably imagine — things just felt weird,” Hanna said. “It also took a while to develop the upper body strength to properly control a bike. Running was somewhat easier. When I was finally able to race again in May of 2021, I wore a breast cancer survivor kit custom-made by one of my teams. Upon my follow-up several weeks later, I can confidently say I brought Dr. Lancaster to tears when I told her I finally qualified for Half Ironman World Championships. It was a long-term dream, and I never imagined it would be my first comeback race from breast cancer.”

Dr. Hanna's wedding photo

Since then, Hanna got engaged to her longtime training partner and best friend, John Hanna, and got married on April 30, 2022, surrounded by their closest family and friends.

“John was by my side from the moment I received the phone call that my biopsy was positive for cancer, and he has been there ever since,” Hanna said. “We’re now training for World Championships, which will be held in Saint George, Utah, this October.” 

Hanna says she does not know how it happened, but she can now say that cancer has given her so much more than it has taken away.

“Or maybe I do know,” Hanna said. “Daily small steps. Sometimes with tears. Constant reminders from friends and family. The support and encouragement of community. I am a different person than I was on December 19, 2019. Stronger. More resilient. More grateful. And, I hope, a better mother, wife, daughter, physician, friend, sister and coach.”

“And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him. In all things. Even cancer. I got the better end of this deal. And if I had it to do all over again, I can say with confidence that I would choose the exact same path.”

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