Participant since 2012
Photo credit: Leonard Beeghley Photography
Be wary of stories that suggest that cancer can be a good thing. Have no doubt, cancer is devious. The ways in which people’s lives change for the better after cancer has everything to do with the body in which those wretched cells reside. Jerri is a force. With support from Cornucopia Cancer Support Center, she not only survived breast cancer, but used her illness to dig deep and cultivate her loving, brave self. She traded in secrets and privacy for brave, gritty, authenticity. Her body is hers again. Her actions spill forth to light the way for others. Her smile is one of humble victory, a reminder of our ability to get beat up over and over and over and somehow emerge intact, victorious.
Read the rest of Jerri’s story below.
Cancer always reveals itself. A crushing headache beyond the reach of ibuprofen. Bruises that appear without so much as a brush against the coffee table. “It’s just a cold,” drifting from days to weeks, the calendar ticking by as fatigue grows deeper. A shadow on the mammogram as the radiologist spends just a bit longer studying the image, brow furrowed, deep in thought. “Let’s get another image,” she says, her mouth smiles but her eyes do not. The hope is that doctors find the cancer before too much damage is done, before the multiplying cells drift into the lymphatic system to take up residence elsewhere.
Jerri had mammograms before – dense tissue required extra attention. The word “benign” always rolled off the doctor’s tongue, friendly and comforting. In the summer of 2010, the language changed. This time, the radiologist said, “suspicious.” This word feels like a rock. It is spoken and then drops, heavy and unwelcoming. “Suspicious” required a closer look. A wide-bore needle pierced her skin, drilled deep into her breast, collecting cells for a pathologist to examine.
Once cancer enters the picture, the language changes from words that can be used to describe neighbors, to words that require an advanced degree. This time, the darkened spot on Jerri’s mammogram was, “ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS). Stage one or two, Grade two.”
Jerri is a nurse, familiar with the ins and outs of hospitals, clinics, and exams; of fear, hope, loss, and recovery.
“I was shocked” she says, upon hearing her diagnosis. Her surgeon recommended a partial mastectomy. Clean margins of the excised tissue suggest removal of all the cancerous cells.
“I was a private person” she says, “a very private person.” She did not share the news with her mother or siblings. Childhood trauma created confusion, broke family ties. She hesitated to share the news with her children. Her daughter lived and worked in Washington DC. Her son was starting college nearby, filled with excitement and anticipation of all that comes with independence — new knowledge, new friends. Who wants to start college with the weight of a mother newly diagnosed with cancer? An oncology nurse talked with Jerri, convinced her to tell her children. Telling her children about her diagnosis created a crack in her seal of privacy.
Jerri’s partial mastectomy was performed outpatient. Her daughter traveled from DC to help her heal and recover at home. Jerri returned to work as soon as possible.
Her surgeon called with bad news, her tissue margins were not clear. They had to go back in again. She had a second surgery, another partial mastectomy, more tissue removed. She recovered again, returned to work again. Shockingly, the margins were not clear on the second surgery and she went in for surgery a third time. Given the option, she wanted to keep as much of her breast as she safely could. Her daughter came down for all three surgeries. This time, Jerri got the all clear. She healed a third time and then began 6-weeks of radiation. Treatment was scheduled to start in December. Christmas and New Year’s would be different this year.
Jerri was the only income earner in her immediate family. Across the three surgeries, she drained her paid leave. She told coworkers about her diagnosis and they donated time to cover her time off. With another crack in her seal of privacy, generosity drifted into her life in unexpected ways.
Mammogram machines, biopsy needles, scalpels, microscopes, chemotherapy, radiation – this is where the phrase, “fighting cancer” comes from. Our medical system is at war, a finely tuned, strategic battle with the sole purpose of seeking and destroying the machinery of broken cells, dividing into oblivion. Sometimes, our gentle spirits are lost or broken in the intensity of battle.
“I always believed in alternative medicine,” Jerri says. By definition, standard cancer treatment is not alternative. Into her three surgeries, she met with a social worker at the cancer center. She confided in him the strain of treatment, ways in which the surgeries not only removed cancerous cells, but also severed her sense of wholeness. The social worker told her about a local agency that may be helpful to her, Cornucopia Cancer Support Center.
Jerri went home to learn about Cornucopia. She learned that the agency, located away from the cool, ordered halls and walls of the cancer center, offers non-clinical services to anybody in the community affected by cancer – patients, survivors, family members, caregivers. She learned about Cornucopia’s yoga classes, massage, acupuncture, life coaching, and reflexology. All services are offered with an understanding of how lives change with a cancer diagnosis. Participants do not pay for services. As she read about their offerings, she felt a sense of relief, of hope.
After surgery, she bravely picked up the phone and called to sign up for Cornucopia’s programs. She welcomed the gentle touch of massage. She started meditating again and stretching her scarred body through yoga. She met with a life coach, peeling away memories and emotions from her childhood. For the first time as far back as she could remember, she focused on taking care of herself. She realized how years of secrets and stress had been toxic to her body and her spirit. A sense of purpose evolved within, and she was struck by a new pull to share more of herself and to mend ties with her family.
The 6-weeks of radiation were crushing for Jerri. Radiation disrupts the DNA of cancerous cells, breaking the code of perpetual division. It also damages surrounding, healthy cells. She switched her emotions and daily rhythms onto auto pilot. She went into work every morning and radiation therapy in the afternoon. Jerri felt unsettled by the weight of radiation’s powerful, toxic effects. Her treatment brought a noxious odor that she describes as burning flesh. Years later, remembering the smell cracks her brilliant smile and brings tears to her eyes.
After 6-weeks of radiation, Jerri’s oncology team recommended a follow-up mammogram a few months later. Jerri wanted a mammogram sooner – she needed to know the cancerous cells were gone. She describes a strong gut feeling that something wasn’t right. Her medical team paused — having a mammogram so soon after radiation was not standard treatment. She pushed, needing her worries calmed, and her doctors agreed to the imaging.
Unlike anything the doctors had ever seen, her had cancer returned. Instead of killing the cancer cells, the radiation somehow triggered them into action. Her world shattered. She became a case for Grand Rounds, her electronic medical record contained the mystery of a battle lost and the generals needed to discuss and analyze the possible shortcomings. Sitting before her surgeon, he said to her, “Enough.” She needed a total mastectomy.
This time, surgery required an overnight stay in the hospital. Doctors checked surrounding lymph nodes for cancer and learned they were clear. She would not need chemotherapy. She went home with drains and orders for wound care. This time, she could not return to work so soon. Again, her daughter came down to help with her care. Neighbors offered help when they could.
The return of cancer after radiation, the need for a fourth and more intense surgery, drained Jerri’s finances. Parts of her life crumbled. She had to leave her home and stay with her children’s father. Her story is a deep ache.
Three years later, Jerri shares her cancer experience with calm confidence. Like so many cancer survivors, none of her journey, her damage, her surgeries, is easily visible. She smiles from within – her eyes communicate loving energy. Through a combination of her own strength, her friends and family, and support from Cornucopia Cancer Support Center, she talks about becoming authentic – about shedding the burdens of family sorrows and unexpected illness. She no longer has time or space for resentment. She talks about getting rid of the “I wishes” and “I can’ts” and cultivating possibilities based on her inner sense of how she can make her way forward with gratitude, strength, peace, and compassion. Cancer revealed vulnerabilities, demanded that she get rid of her need for privacy.
Jerri now takes classes on how to practice Reiki, a physical and spiritual practice that guides and directs positive energy. She participated in Reiki practice at Cornucopia, felt its healing effects. She is working towards a psychology degree to help her better understand childhood trauma. She talks more with her mother and siblings. She lives with a sense of purpose and sees herself helping others. She works to recognize her fears and does the hard work of understanding them so that they can be laid to rest. She’s learned how to take care of herself.
Be wary of stories that suggest that cancer is a good thing. Have no doubt, cancer is devious. The ways in which people’s lives change for the better after cancer has everything to do with the body in which those wretched cells reside. Jerri is a force. She received good medical care. She identified what she needed in order to survive. She created the space for resources provided by Cornucopia, by coworkers willing to donate sick leave, by nurses and social workers guiding her to ask for help. She learned she could dig deep and do the gritty, painful work of rebuilding a life. Her story reminds us to be mindful of what stories and experiences we keep to ourselves, of what control we think we have in our lives. Her smile is one of humble victory, a reminder of our ability to get beat up over and over and over and somehow emerge intact, victorious.