Jenssen remains strong through cancer battle
By Heather Graves
GREEN BAY – Like many others, Green Bay resident Rachel Jenssen said the past year feels like a blur.
“It seems like a bad dream we are all waiting to wake up from,” she said.
While most of the world would credit the COVID-19 pandemic as the reason behind the feeling, the villain in Rachel’s story is breast cancer.
Imagine meeting your future husband, a month later being diagnosed with stage 2 breast cancer, starting chemotherapy two weeks after that, and less than eight weeks after being told you were in remission hearing not only had the cancer returned, but it metastasized to your lymph nodes, chest, spine, neck and brain.
It may sound like the script of a movie, but for Rachel, it’s her reality.
Working as a COVID-19 ICU nurse, the spring of 2020 for Rachel was much the same as thousands of other nurses throughout the country.
She was doing what she could to support patients as the world battled a virus no one was prepared for.
“As a newer nurse in ICU, it was overwhelming, scary that our world was in a crisis,” she said. “A lot of patients you had to help Facetime with their families. There were language barriers. It was disheartening. Our hospital, the world in general, didn’t know how to adjust it. Every 5 minutes they were making changes.”
Due to her work with COVID patients, especially in the early months of the pandemic, Rachel had to quarantine herself away from her family.
Not an easy task, she said, considering the tight bond she has with her mom, dad and three siblings.
The group, however, didn’t allow it to discontinue its weekly dinners.
“My mom would have a heated blanket all prepared and ready for me outside on the deck,” she said. “My family would eat inside the house and I would sit outside the window on the deck, and that is how we did things.”
Rachel said her family was adapting to the new normal.
Little did she know, COVID-19 wasn’t the only obstacle 2020 had in store for her.
On the morning of her 30th birthday, she found a lump in her breast.
“When you first hear the word cancer, my world, it just flipped,” she said. “Nothing made sense. The world just kept spinning… The only thing I could do was pray.”
Within 10 days, her port was placed and chemo started.
Rachel did 20 rounds of chemo over the next several months, followed by a bilateral mastectomy in December.
“This was a huge learning curve for Brian (my boyfriend at the time, and current husband) and I, because, not only are we only six months into dating, but he is now completely taking care of me and cleaning my drains,” she said.
After recovering from the surgery, Rachel did 25 rounds of radiation, followed by hormone therapy.
A scan a few weeks later showed a couple of spots, but she said her doctors weren’t concerned and believed they got everything.
“They were kind of like ‘No, we think we got it all, we’ll do a repeat in June,” she said.
Not even eight weeks later, Rachel said she knew something wasn’t right.
“I ended up getting a CT and they found lung nodules,” she said.
Rachel said she saw the results of her scan through her provider’s health app before hearing the confirmation from her doctors.
“I went running outside and I fell to my knees,” she said. “My husband was cutting the grass and he came running over to me and I was like, ‘This isn’t good…’ That was probably the worst night of my life.”
The feeling of having to reopen the same door she thought was closed just a few months earlier, Rachel said, was one of the hardest things she had to do during her year-long battle.
“This wasn’t supposed to be happening,” she said. “I was told I was a survivor.”
In the coming days, Rachel underwent a lung biopsy and it showed she had stage 4 triple-negative breast cancer.
“Triple-negative is a little bit hard to treat,” she said. “And stage 4 being that it was already in my bones, my lungs, my neck, my spine and recently I just got word that it’s in my brain.”
Meeting her prince
It is often said people are brought into someone’s life when they need them the most.
Rachel said this statement absolutely describes her relationship with her husband Brian.
“I met him 30 days before I was diagnosed with cancer,” she said.
Rachel met Brian Jenssen, a school resource officer at Bay Port High School, in May 2020 through a mutual friend.
After “doing some spring cleaning on my love life,” as she called it, just a few months earlier, Rachel said she went into their first date with few expectations.
“An old coworker of mine said ‘My husband works with a guy, you should meet him,” she said. “Oh, the dating world at 30. I said ‘OK, whatever, tell him to add me on Facebook. Maybe we’ll talk, who knows.’ He added me and we started having conversations on Facebook.”
In the weeds of the COVID-19 pandemic, her being a nurse and him being a cop, the two decided to meet for coffee at his house for their first date.
“I wasn’t overly excited about it,” she said. “You know, at 30 years old, you kind of give up hope a little bit on love, because guys are all set in their ways at 30. So, I showed up in pajamas. I had slippers on, no makeup, my hair wasn’t done. I was just like ‘Let’s get this date over with, so I can move on with my life.’”
Little did she know, Brian was ready to impress.
“All of a sudden he walks (out of his house) looking like an Abercrombie model,” Rachel said. “I sprinted back to my vehicle and I’m wiping my face. I’m like ‘Oh my gosh, what did I just get myself into?’”
Rachel said the pjs and slippers must have impressed, as the pair hasn’t spent a day apart since.
“They instantly fell in love with each other,” Rachel’s sister, Kimberly Krueger, said. “It was like a fairytale. Nurse meets the cop, falls in love and lives happily ever after. Except for a month later, Rachel was diagnosed. Brian has proved his love for her by staying by her side through all her treatments, surgeries and tests.”
Brian sold the house he purchased earlier that year to move in with Rachel and support her through her fight.
Just three months after their coffee date, he proposed at the Jerry Parins Cruise for Cancer event in August 2020.
“She’s at her oncologists going over all the treatments she’s going to get,” Brian said. “He tells her, ‘You are going to have 20 weeks of chemotherapy, surgery, radiation and oh, by the way, five to 10 years of hormone pills, and if you are taking those, you can’t have kids. You are going to struggle. It is not going to be fun.’ Instantly, Rachel replies with ‘I’m ready’… That girl is my hero.”
Getting down on one knee at Vandervest Harley-Davidson, Brian said “I think about how incredible it might be to actually marry your real-life hero. And there is really only one way to answer that question.”
The wedding planned for October 2021 was moved up to June, and surrounded by family and friends at her family farm in Gillett, Rachel’s dream wedding became a reality.
“It was a true miracle that Rachel felt great the day of their wedding considering she was in the hospital with pneumonia, discharged the day before they got married,” Krueger said.
Oasis of Hope
Rachel will soon be taking her cancer fight abroad.
“I found it in my heart that there is more,” she said.
In conjunction with her treatments here in the states, at the end of the month, Rachel travels to Tijuana, Mexico, for a specialized treatment program at the Oasis of Hope Hospital and Treatment Center.
“My mom had someone reach out to her and talk about Oasis of Hope,” she said. “And then I’ve had friends reach out and say ‘Hey, I’ve heard about this place in Tijuana, Mexico where their survival rates are off the (charts).”
Through those conversations and her research, Rachel said she realized Oasis of Hope was the next path on her journey.
“I started looking into it and their survival rates are double of what the U.S. is,” she said. “And my thought process was – their survival rates are so high, they probably only take cases that they know are going to survive. But, they literally take the worst of the worst patients and give them every hope.”
Rachel said she hopes combining the treatments she’ll receive at Oasis of Hope with the treatments she continues to receive in the U.S., will attack her cancer in a new and unique way.
“They do strategic hyperthermia,” she said. “So, they increase your body temperature and then they give you vitamin C to get into the cancer walls so that your cancer is actually absorbing it… Then they do vitamin K injections. They even take some of my cancer and make a vaccine out of it, and give me that.”
Rachel said she will receive 24-hour care for three weeks at Oasis of Hope, with return trips every three months, a week at a time.
“It is truly an oasis,” she said. “You are healing not only your body but also your mind, your soul, everything is just at peace there. The beach is right there. They go over nutrition, what you are putting in your body. And they give you supplements to go home with. So, I’ll have supplements every month and everything I’m taking is continued through them, on top of what I’m doing in the U.S.”
Rachel said the outpouring of support she’s received over the past 18 months has often left her speechless.
“I get choked up seeing how much people have reached out with the GoFundMe page, it’s phenomenal,” she said. “When you turn the news on, it is so scary and sad. But, when you really take a small blurb of what I’ve gone through in the last year, there is so much love and life in this world. It is just sometimes you don’t see it in the big picture.”
Rachel’s former co-workers wear pink ribbons with the words “Team Rach” on their scrubs, supporting her from a distance.
“The girls I worked with are family, too,” she said.
Members of her hometown of Gillett recently gave back in a big way – hosting a 5K run and concert fundraiser to help raise funds to help with Rachel’s growing medical bills.
“Some of these people I’ve known my entire life, but it is not like these are my best friends,” she said. “But because (I’m from) such a small community, people we grew up with are absolutely amazing coming together to support me.”
Hundreds filled Gillett to show their support.
“Seeing a community of hundreds pull together to give inspiration and hope to Rachel, was beyond overwhelming,” Krueger said.
Rachel said through it all, she has learned to not sweat the small stuff and it’s OK to lean on others.
“I’m proud to show others that having cancer doesn’t make my life hard, it has made me strong and I can still laugh and have a good time,” she said. “Why? Because cancer doesn’t define me. It’s a part of my journey.”
Family members said Rachel has remained strong, even when they weren’t, and said she refuses to let cancer and negatively overcome her.
“As I reflect on the last 18 months, I am still in denial,” Krueger said. “It seems like a bad dream, but the reality is that pain, love and faithfulness are real everyday life for our family. I see the pain in my parents’ eyes watching their child endure the struggle for her life. I see the deep love in Brian’s and Rachel’s eyes as they have searched their entire lives for this kind of love.”
Anyone interested in learning more about Rachel’s story can find her on Facebook at #RachStrong.