Former 'Survivor' Battles Breast Cancer

Jenn Lyon tells PEOPLE about rebuilding her body – and her self-esteem – after surgery

Jenn Lyon had it all – beauty and reality-TV fame as a competitor on Survivor: Palau. Now, the 33-year-old tells PEOPLE about breast cancer – and why for her reconstructive surgery was the first step to feeling better

In the summer of 2004, I felt something in my right breast that didn’t feel normal. They always describe cancer in terms of a pea, right? Well, this was more like several rocks strung together. I thought it was probably scar tissue related to my breast implants. So I let it go for a long time.

I got my saline implants six years ago. It was just something in my head that I thought I needed to do for self-esteem, to balance myself out. Before, I was a large A-cup, and the implants changed me to a small C-cup.

At the time I noticed the lumps I didn’t have insurance, which was a big part of why I didn’t get it checked immediately. I went on the Internet and thought, “It is scar tissue. No big deal.” But a year later, I felt another lump right in the center of the breast and something in my right armpit. I saw a surgeon who said, “I’m pretty sure you have breast cancer.” After a mammogram, an ultrasound and a biopsy, it was confirmed stage III.

I opted to get a modified, radical bilateral mastectomy on Aug. 29 at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles. A surgeon removed both my breasts and 29 lymph nodes.

After my mastectomy, a plastic surgeon put in “spacers” to expand my chest muscles to make room for the new implants smaller silicone implants this time. A second operation Oct. 5 completed the process. My new implants have been a huge boost to my spirit.

In a week or so, I start a four- to six-month course of chemotherapy, followed by tamoxifen, a drug designed to prevent a recurrence. My doctor has warned me I may stop having my period and go into early menopause. That s tough because I haven’t had kids yet.

Being on Survivor has helped in every sense of the word. My doctor told me, “You have beautiful hair, and you re going to lose it.” But Coby Archa, the Texas hairdresser who was in my Survivor tribe, says he’s going to shave my head for me and shave his too. Survivor taught me there s an end in sight. As hard as it is, it will be over, and you have to appreciate every day.

To read the full story, pick up the Oct. 24 issue of PEOPLE on newsstands now.

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