When Jennifer Pellechio-Lukowiak of Colts Neck was diagnosed with breast cancer at age 38, she was flooded with support. Her husband, her 9-year-old and 11-year-old sons and the rest of her family and friends made food, offered help and dropped off guiding books.
But Lukowiak said there was a lot missing from those books for a woman diagnosed with breast cancer in her 30's. She struggled with how to tell her young children, she struggled with the thought of losing her hair and she struggled to maintain her sense of humor.
"I had read books, people were great about giving me books. But, they were written from a very different perspective. They were written by someone who had grown children, or had retired or at a point in their lives where they could slow down," she said. "I couldn't relate to a lot of what I was reading."
Lukowiak was diagnosed with stage 2A breast cancer, and endured three surgeries to biopsy and remove infected lymph nodes. After 16 weeks of chemotherapy, a round of radiation and a year of Herceptin, Lukowiak has been in remission for five years.
During her battle with cancer, Lukowiak began to keep a journal. It began as a list of doctor's appointements and tips, and turned into witty remarks and sarcastic comments in the margins. Eventually, Lukowiak began transcribing her notes, and adding her own feelings about the day or tips she hoped to remember.
"Initially, it wasn't ever in my head that this was going to be a book or something I would ever share with somebody," Lukowiak said. "It got to the point where there were so many doctors, so many tests, something every day. My mother told me to keep a diary, I looked at her like she was crazy."
But Lukowiak realized at some point, she would forget all of those appointments and tests, and what happened on those days in the doctors' offices. So she began to keep a looseleaf notebook.
"I had started chemo, and I was home on disability, that I began to type them up," she said. "Slowly, I began to put in how I was feeling that day, or how I felt about a test, or 'how come they didn't tell me this was going to happen, or I was going to feel like this.'"
Last May, those notes turned into a self-published book called Does This Outfit Make Me Look Bald? How A Fashionista Fought Breast Cancer With Style.
"It wasn't until I was probably almost done with chemo and ready to start radiation that I began to think about the fact that I had nobody to talk to about this," Lukowiak said. "I mean I had an amazing support system...but I was ultimately going through this by myself."
The young Colts Neck mother said she had very little resources to turn to, even just to tell her what to look for from doctors or stay away from at such a young age. So she began compiling her true journey
"It is very, very different when your kids are 9 and 11 and you have to tell them you have cancer. There is no training manual for that."
Lukowiak said telling her children was one of the most difficult moments of her cancer, but she and her husband have always maintained an honest relationship with them.
Her youngest son, then 9, was the first to ask the hardest question. He asked his mother if she was going to die.
"That ripped my heart out, and I answered it the only way I could answer it, I said 'I don't plan to.'"
Lukowiak said through all of her treatment, she kept her sense of humor and made a lot of jokes at her own expense.
When her youngest stuck his head out of the car while Lukowiak was talking to another mother, screaming "Hey Chemo Girl, let's go!" the young mother said she knew she had done her job, and kept her sons' sense of humor as well.
"I tried not to give them a lot of fear."
These stories, of Lukowiak's journey through a terrifying diagnosis, are ones that she hopes to share and will help young mothers.
From anecdotal tips about how to tell young children about a cancer diagnosis, to recipes that cure chemo nausea. Lukowiak even dives into the importance of keeping up pre-diagnosis routines, such as putting on makeup everyday and wearing a cute top.
"Things like that helped me feel like me," she said. "I loaded my iPod with funny movies and my favorite music, just anything that would make me laugh. It just helped so much."
The book is divided not by chapters, but by song lyrics that Lukowiak said were important to her, especially on chemo days.
"It is a book with a soundtrack. There are all these songs in there that meant something to me, or that correlated to what I was going through," she said.
Lukowiak said she her own support system was amazing, but she lacked the small insight when it came to knowing what to expect. In her book, she offers tips ranging from asking for anesthesia when having a chemotherapy port put in and taken out, to recipes that may not make a chemo patient as nauseous as usual.
"A lot of it is mental toughness, but it is also a positive attitude."
She is now back to work in New York City, and travels with cancer support groups to share her story and maintain a sense of community for those diagnosed and survivors.
Lukowiak will be at the Monmouth County Library in Manalapan for an Author Chat on Oct. 22 at 7 p.m.