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Pain to purpose: The story of a Stage 4 triple-negative breast cancer survivor

Jennifer Greenhut says without the pain she's endured, she wouldn't be the person she is today — now more than seven years cancer-free.
Jennifer Greenhut
Posted at 6:00 PM, Jun 09, 2024

It was 2016 when Jennifer Greenhut's life journey took a detour. The vibrant actress, singer and newlywed's world would be turned upside down.

Greenhut knew her dream of starting a family would not be realized. The next obstacle she would face was one that would test too early — the vow of "in sickness and in health."

Greenhut was one of the growing number of new cases of breast cancer diagnosed each year.

The American Cancer Society says 1 in 8 women will receive a breast cancer diagnosis in their lifetime. With the exception of skin cancer, it's the most common cancer in women in the U.S. — accounting for about 30% of all new cancers in women each year.

However, it's how Greenhut learned of the origin of her diagnosis that shocked her the most.

"My mom thought it was passed down from her," she said. "My sister and my mom both tested for it. They didn't have it. And so my dad had to test for it, and he had it. So I got it from my dad and a lot of people don't even know that men can carry it."

A radiologist uses a magnifying glass to check mammograms for breast cancer.

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Each parent can carry the BRCA1 and BRCA2 gene, which help produce proteins that help repair damaged DNA. But if certain variants of the genes change, they can become deadly.

Greenhut's focus was to remain positive while battling the aggressive disease. But each new doctor visit would leave her feeling less hopeful about her chances of survival.

Until she met the third doctor.

"The third doctor I met was at UCLA and I remember really feeling safe the minute I shook his hand," she said. "And he did a really thorough physical examination of me."

In January 2017, Greenhut would begin chemotherapy. By May she was deemed cancer-free.

"May 24th is always a special day," she said.

Seven years later, Greenhut has a new business and foundation helping women fight the same battle she won.

The foundation creates merchandise to support those fighting the disease, proceeds from which go to cancer research at UCLA's Jonsson Cancer Center Foundation.

Through the foundation, Greenhut also shares lessons she learned, along with writing a memoir with her husband in 2022 called "Everyone Needs a Larry."

"I think most people are more prepared to be a caregiver than they know," Greenhut's husband Larry Tollin said. "There's a lot of things in life that prepare you, but the most important thing is to show up. The No. 1 most important thing is that of a caregiver is to show up."

A radiologist uses a magnifying glass to check mammograms for breast cancer

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The couple's book details the patience and understanding it takes for a spouse to support a sick mate. Most importantly, their book showcased how to live and love each other through difficult times.

"It was just a hard place to be at that moment, and we're able to laugh about it now," Greenhut said. "But it's sort of just understanding how much love there is."

Through written love letters and emails, the couple would grow stronger. Greenhut says without the pain she's endured, she wouldn't be the person she is today — now more than seven years cancer-free.

"That Stage 4 cancer was the best thing to happen to me because I see how everything now that comes to my life — whether it's good or bad — I just trust that there's a reason. I trust that being alive, being a human being, we're going to have a lot of things to get through."