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Jenn Lyon - CBS Survivor Castaway

The reality show was a warm-up for surviving breast cancer.

by Julie McKenna

For over two decades, celebrities have entrusted Coping® to tell the world about their personal experience with cancer. We are proud to present this exclusive interview from our archives and hope that it will inspire and encourage all who read it. This article was originally published in Coping with Cancer magazine, September/October 2006.

Jenn Lyon Cancer Survivor

(photo by Me & My Two Friends Foundation for Breast Cancer Awareness)

Two years ago, Jenn Lyon outplayed 16 of the 20 castaways on the CBS reality show Survivor: Palau, lasting 37 days on the island. Although she was not the ultimate survivor on the show, upon returning home she was to become the ultimate survivor in her fight with breast cancer.

Several months before Jenn began filming Survivor, she found a lump in her breast. But when she mentioned it to her nurse practitioner, she was told it was most likely scar tissue from her breast augmentation surgery. “I was given a clean bill of health to go on Survivor,” recalls Jenn. “And the nurse was really sure it was just scar tissue built up around the implants, so I didn’t think it was anything to worry about. She said I was too young and I don’t even need a mammogram until I’m 35. But I think that’s a big misconception that needs to be changed because women who are in their 20s are getting diagnosed with breast cancer.”

Empowered by her false sense of security, Jenn stayed focused on the show, becoming one of the last four people left on the island. Even then, she only lost in a tie-breaking challenge. Although she did not win the million dollar prize, it was an invaluable experience for someone who would soon meet an even bigger challenge. “I have so many good memories from being on the show,” says Jenn. “It was the best time of my life and I would do it again in a heartbeat.”

Despite the good memories, Jenn admits it’s much harder than it looks on TV. “Sleeping at night was probably the hardest thing for me. It’s just so uncomfortable and you have none of your comforts; no pillows or blankets or any of that.” Little did Jenn know at the time that she would soon be facing even greater hardships.

The nurse was really sure it was just scar tissue
built up around the implants.

The show finished filming in December 2004 and the finale aired the following May. It wasn’t until a routine checkup in July that Jenn was diagnosed with breast cancer. She was shocked at the diagnosis because she had been so certain that it was simply scar tissue. Jenn had a bilateral mastectomy followed by chemotherapy and radiation, which she just completed in April.

When she was diagnosed, Jenn admits the hardest part for her was the thought of losing her hair. To make the process easier, she asked her Survivor castmate Coby, a hair stylist, to cut her hair for her. “He made the process so much easier. It made it kind of a fun, more happy experience than a sad one which it could have been,” says Jenn. "Inside Edition paid for him to come up here to Oregon where I was having treatment and he cut my hair really short. He didn’t shave it because that would have been a little too shocking since I still hadn’t started to lose it yet. And I was hanging onto the small possibility that I might be the one person who doesn’t lose her hair.”

Now that Jenn has finished treatment and become the ultimate survivor in her battle with cancer, she’s making it her goal to help others. She is currently involved with the Me and My Two Friends Foundation, which focuses on the early detection and prevention of breast cancer through education and awareness. “The idea is to remind a woman to get a mammogram and then for her to encourage two friends to also get mammograms,” says Jenn. “It’s to spread the word and talk about cancer and realize there is no shame or embarrassment about the disease.” The founder, Alisa Unger, has designed breast cancer jewelry pieces and is planning on donating a portion of the proceeds to fund breast cancer education projects.

Jenn is also hoping to help other women with breast cancer in the same way that one woman helped her. “The best thing that I got when I was diagnosed was a letter from a 27-year-old woman who had already gone through it. She told me step by step what she went through and she sent pictures of her bald and then pictures of her with hair,” recalls Jenn. “And it was just really great to see that she came out on the other side and was fine. That she was able to fight through it.” Based on Jenn Lyon’s track record, there is no doubt that she will succeed in creating more “ultimate” survivors.

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Visit Me and My Two Friends Foundation for more information.

This article was published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, September/October 2006.