Lt. Gov. Coleman reflects on her preventive double mastectomy

By Sarah Ladd
Kentucky Lantern

Kentucky Lt. Gov. Jacqueline Coleman knew for a long time that one day she might learn cancer was at her door.

Her family history put her on heightened alert; her mother, aunt and cousin all had breast cancer. So she “wasn’t shocked” when, in September, a routine mammogram — her first — concerned her health-care provider.

She went for more tests, including magnetic resonance imaging and biopsy. After the biopsy she learned she needed surgery, either way. Her doctors were concerned about several areas in her breasts, and she was facing “biopsy and remove, biopsy and remove, times four.”

She knew immediately: “I don’t want to live like that.” Without the mastectomy, she faced “scans and screens and biopsies every six months for the rest of my life.”

“In a way, it was almost like I was waiting for this news,” she told the Kentucky Lantern during a sit-down interview in her Capitol office on Jan. 23. She would eventually undergo a double mastectomy on Dec. 18.

But as she wrapped up the last leg of a statewide re-election campaign with Gov. Andy Beshear, Coleman found herself in medical limbo. Screenings and tests defined her personal October and November, even as she debated her opponent on KET, traveled the state meeting voters and celebrating on election night.

“I’m going through the end of a campaign, which is … the most intense time, and I have all these questions,” she said. “And it was really hard to not know what was going to happen.”

The tests “just kind of get a little bit more invasive each time,” said Coleman, 41. “And of course, it takes time to … do the test, to have them read, to schedule the next one. It’s a frustrating process because you have more questions than answers, it seems, the entire time. But you’re also grateful that your doctors are being so thorough, and making sure to cover all the bases.”

In early December, Coleman was “relieved” to learn she could get a double mastectomy at Baptist Health in Lexington.

“I felt it would be irresponsible to have a three-year-old, and to not be as aggressive as I could be,” she said.

Coleman did not have cancer, but she didn’t know that until after her surgery, when her pathology results came back clean. “The one place that was a great concern came back benign, but had malignant potential,” she said. “And so I felt like I got ahead of it. And I feel like I made the right decision.”

At the mercy of disease

Coleman says she’s “not the best person about going to the doctor,” but “I also know that being preventative gives you a chance.”

“When you’re reactive, you’re at the mercy of … It could be a disease,” she said.

Still, medical issues wait for no one.

“You’re fighting for your life, and you still have to pick the kids up, and you still have to go to the grocery, and you still have to go to work,” Coleman said. “The world doesn’t stop.”

If anything, she said, the whole experience left her with less patience for what she called “petty politics.”

“There are real problems in the world,” she said. “I think about the importance of women being empowered to protect their own health, to be trusted.”

Not alone

After her surgery, Coleman got cards and letters from people all over the state telling her their stories about going through similar health challenges.

“It was a message of: ‘You’re not alone’,” she said. “But it was also a message of reassurance. And it was remarkable.”

Coleman said she finally feels like herself again, and is looking forward to getting back out in communities across Kentucky. And she plans to keep using her story to encourage others to seek preventive care — and to know there is a community of Kentuckians who relate to their journeys.

“I know how alone I felt when I got the news and when I tried to find my way and what was the right path for me,” she said. “And I don’t want other women to feel that way.”

Women from 40 to 49 should get mammograms every two years, and from 50 to 74, they should get the exam every year, according to the state Department for Public Health. To find out how to get a free or low-cost mammogram or cervical cancer screening, call 844-249-0708. Click here for more information.
Cancer is a leading cause of death in Kentucky, which has high rates of breast cancer. In 2021, Kentucky lost more than 10,000 people to cancer, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Breast cancer is second only to lung cancer in its mortality nationwide, according to the American Cancer Society.
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