“I want to be a voice and help others who are going through this. I truly feel like that is my purpose. To help others. It’s always been in my nature but I feel like I’ve experienced this to help others going through breast cancer.”
“A strong woman looks a challenge dead in the eye and gives it a wink.” (Gina Carey) But strong is a weak word when compared to Julia. Growing up in Spokane, Washington, Julia Josephine Fant was raised by her grandparents. Julia was named after her great grandmother Josephine and grandmother Julia (nicknamed Grandma Julie). Their bond goes deeper than family. Grandma Julie was first diagnosed with breast cancer in 2006. She has been through chemotherapy and radiation twice, had a single mastectomy, goes in for transfusions every other week, works 5+ days a week, and takes care of her husband who was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease in 2015. To say that Julia comes from a strong family is an understatement.
Julia married John Riley on January 12, 2013. They have a blended family. Julia has two children from a previous marriage – Ethan (age 9) and Miya (age 7). John had two children from a previous marriage as well – Teaghan (age 10) and Kaybie (age 14). Together, they have two children – Tatum (age 4) and Kinsey, the miracle child (age 2 months). Julia and her husband own a small local tinting business in Roseburg called TintPro.
On October 22, 2016, Julia found a pea sized lump on her breast. On October 27th, she went to her OB office and had a nurse practitioner take a look. “She thought it was just a cyst or clogged duct. It was so tiny.” Julia says. But to be safe, she had an ultrasound on November 8th. This was the beginning of her journey. “The radiation doctor who read [the scans] told me I needed to have a biopsy and an immediate mammogram.” Minutes later, Julia had a mammogram and the doctor also scheduled her biopsy. “I was hesitant because I didn’t have insurance and all of this was being paid out of pocket. It just so happened it was my friend who did my mammogram and I asked her how important it was [to get the biopsy] because of my insurance issue. Without telling me what she saw on the scans, she looked me straight in the eye and said to get it done now.” On November 14th, Julia had her biopsy and two days later on the 16th, she got a call back from her doctor and was told to come in with her husband. “I got a sinking feeling.” The doctor told them that Julia had breast cancer. Julia’s Aunt LaVonne says – “Unfortunately, she comes from a family history of cancer. And when she caught it early, we were glad that she found it but it was also devastating because we were like ‘oh no not again’. We have certainly been a family that has been through the cancer train and it’s a club we never wanted her to join.” Luckily, the doctor got Julia an appointment that coming Friday with a surgeon. “Before we got there, I had it made up that I was going to ask for a bilateral mastectomy. “This is a surgery to remove both breasts in treatment of breast cancer. “We received so much important information our heads could explode. There was a lot of tests I had to do to determine treatment. I met with an oncologist the following week. I had to have a biopsy on my lymph nodes as well. My tests came back as triple positive, node positive, and BRCA positive.” Triple positive is a type of HER2 cancer (a protein detected that promotes the growth of cancer cells) that is also driven by hormones. Node positive means that the cancer cells from the breast have been found in the lymph nodes under the armpit. And BRCA (or BReast CAncer genes) positive means the person has an inherited mutation that increases their chances of getting cancers. To start her battle, Julia got a port implanted on December 5th and started chemotherapy on December 16th. Chemo ended in February of 2017 and on April 4, 2017, Julia had her double mastectomy.
When Julia was about to start radiation, there was a little bump in the road. “They gave me a pregnancy test [before radiation treatments] as it was standard. I had a weird feeling so I took an at-home one as well. And sure enough, I was pregnant.” Julia decided to proceed with the radiation, as it does not affect the baby. “I made it through the first trimester without any complications at all. I went to radiation then CrossFit every day. Five days a week. Then one day I got this severe pain in my lower right side.” Julia went to the ER and was sent back home multiple times from inconclusive results. Finally, after going back to the ER again with extreme nausea and vomiting from the pain, they admitted her. The doctors thought maybe it was her appendix but they couldn’t see it on the ultrasound. They gave her a choice to either have a CT scan or laparoscopic surgery. Having a CT scan while being pregnant is not recommended as 1 in 1,000 children develop a greater risk of developing a cancer from it. “I opted for surgery because of the chances of childhood leukemia and cancer being already in my genes. I didn’t want to make [Kinsey] a higher risk and go through anything I didn’t have to. I was reassured the surgery was safe. They did the laparoscopic surgery and took my appendix. Unfortunately, that wasn’t the issue. The pain, nausea, and vomiting continued the rest of the pregnancy.” Julia was in the hospital for 36 days straight and in those days, they ran every test. “I did have a colonoscopy and they found a pretty big precancerous polyp they removed. I have to continue to get that checked as well. They noticed my iron was low so they released me from the hospital and sent me to our local cancer center. It turns out I didn’t just have low iron – I had no iron. Like less than 4%. It’s explained a lot of what was going on, just not the pain. I had to do a round of 10 iron infusions. I was checked a month later and my iron only went up by 2% so I did another 10.” Without any iron, Julia’s body has no way of producing new blood. “I was so pale, dizzy, faint – it wasn’t fun on top of everything else.” Julia was referred to OHSU and met a specialist who found out what was causing the pain. “I had a hernia bound up with my ligament. So, as I was getting bigger and growing it was pulling and putting so my pressure on it. Extremely painful. I also found out I was gestational diabetic and Kinsey was big! I had to start giving myself insulin shots every night.” Aunt LaVonne gives more perspective into this journey by saying – “On top of having cancer and on top of begin pregnant, she got the news that she has to go back on chemo as soon as the baby is born. As a woman, our bodies are beautiful. And being pregnant, it stretches our bodies and you don’t feel beautiful. Well, she had to be pregnant with no breasts and that is the bravest thing I have seen.”
Finally, the time came to give birth. Kinsey Jaye Riley was born on January 18, 2018 by C-section at 38 weeks – weighing 9lbs 13oz and 21in long. After delivering, they removed Julia’s fallopian tubes. It took them longer than they had anticipated because she had scar tissue from previous C-sections – the scar tissue also was a reason for some of her pain as well. “They also accidentally gave me a ‘wet tap’ during my spinal tap. A ‘wet tap’ is when they puncture into your spinal fluid. It was a horrid and awful headache pain and I couldn’t turn or move my neck. So, they had to go back in and give me an epidural and put blood in there to patch the hole. It’s called a blood patch. And with that it put a lot of pressure on my spine and I couldn’t move my legs or hips without it hurting and sending shocks down my legs. But through all that Kinsey was so healthy and worth the horrible 6 months I had to go through. Three weeks after my C-section, I met with my oncologist and found out my iron was back up to normal levels and I even had five more pints of blood than I did before surgery and scheduled to continue treatments.” That brings us to present day. Julia has been doing a targeted therapy called Herceptin for the past year. “I get really sick afterwards. So as soon as we figure out why and calm the side effects down, I will start Tamoxifen.” Because Julia has a type of Estrogen based cancer, this is a type of drug that attaches itself to the hormone receptor in the cancer cell and blocks estrogen from attaching to the receptor. This slows or stops the growth of the cancer by preventing the cancer cells from getting the hormones they need to grow. Aunt LaVonne gives perspective into her current battle – “When she takes her medicine and does her chemo, she’s got a good three to five days where she feels like she has been hit with the flu again. And then she’ll get up and she will get her energy back. But guess what? It’s every three weeks. So, they inject her in that port where her breast used to be on the left side and the flu starts again.” Julia is still battling.
Julia belongs to CrossFit Roseburg. She loves any WOD with running, squats, lower body, or abs. She started CrossFit at the beginning of 2012 after going through a really hard and nasty divorce. “I fell in love with my first WOD and have always gone back. I need it emotionally as well as physically. CrossFit was my safe place and they became the family I didn’t have [in Roseburg].” She competed in the 2012, 2014, 2015, and 2016 CrossFit Open’s. In 2014, she got to attend an open WOD in San Francisco and watch Rich Froning Jr. and his crew compete. She also notes that in the 2016 Open, she got her first bar muscle up. She missed the entire year of 2013 because of pregnancy. In 2017, she attended most of the time while doing chemo. Then after her Bilateral Mastectomy, she went 5 days a week while also in radiation. It wasn’t until she had complications with her pregnancy that she had to stop going. “CrossFit kept her sane through all of this. She just about hated it when she wasn’t able to go and do her routine because of the complications with the baby.” Aunt LaVonne says. She continues by saying – “CrossFit isn’t for weenies and neither is cancer.” Julia started back a couple weeks ago, taking four classes and getting back into the swing of things. During her chemotherapy, Julia goes to CrossFit the morning of and then takes the rest of the week off to recover from the treatment. Aunt LaVonne praises CrossFit Roseburg by saying – “Her CrossFit friends are wonderful and I cannot tell you how many times she has said how this journey would have been so much harder [without her CrossFit community].”
Before cancer, Julia enjoyed everything to do with the outdoors. “Summer is my favorite season. I was meant to live in the sun.” She loves camping, going to the river, and rock climbing. She loves to road trip with her husband but because of all the traveling they have to do for her treatments, they are a little sick of it. She loves doing puzzles with her husband. “We like challenging each other with different games.” They also have a different show each night that they watch after all the kids are in bed. Julia has added travel to her bucket list since her diagnosis. “I want to travel to warm places. And New York. Some places just my husband and I. And some with our whole family. They’ve gone through so much because me. I want them to do something fun.” Julia has a favorite bible passage that has helped her throughout this whole experience.
“He forgives all my sins and heals all my diseases.” Psalms 103:3 NLT
Aunt Lavonne admires the community of Roseburg by saying – “And the one thing I can tell you that she has said is that there were times that it felt like just too much. And then the doorbell would ring and dinner would be on the porch. She didn’t know where it came from but it was an answer to a prayer that she hadn’t even spoken aloud. Roseburg is a beautiful community.”
Alex, Julia’s best friend, describes her as “Strong. Courageous. Hopeful. Giving. Selfless. She is the only person I know that despite fighting cancer, and life’s dramas, is still a happy person.” She continues by saying – “I used the quote from Hercules to describe her: A true hero isn’t measured by the size of his strength, but by the strength of his heart. Julia is a hero. She is a loving wife, attentive mother, and still a great friend.” Brook, Julia’s best friend, describes her as “the most giving person I know. She always goes out of her way to make a person feel special. She’s a great listener and amazing shoulder to cry on. She’s a forgiving and compassionate woman.”
John, Julia’s husband, describes her as “resilient and a fighter. This experience has truly tested her and she is coming out stronger than before. I think it has helped her realize the things that are truly important in life and she has been doing whatever she can to help others going through their own battles with cancer.” Julia describes John as a “superhero and Rockstar husband. He’s held this family together, ran our business, and taken care of me and our children. I still don’t know how he has done it. He’s absolutely amazing. Its been hard but he’s done it without complaining. He’s so selfless. Our superhero.”
Julia is a strong mother, wife, granddaughter, and friend. She has an important message she concluded with. “I want to be a voice and help others who are going through this. I truly feel like that is my purpose. To help others. It’s always been in my nature but I feel like I’ve experienced this to help others going through breast cancer.”