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Jackie P of ‘Heard Innovative Solutions’: I Survived Cancer and Here Is How I Did It

An Interview With Savio P. Clemente

Educate yourself. Yes it can be frightening to do the web dive once you learn of a diagnosis because of the dearth of information (good and bad) instantly available to you and seeping into your consciousness. However, much of the information does NOT apply to you and it CAN put you in a negative space. Simultaneously, knowledge breeds curiosity and the most equipped cancer patients come with questions for their medical professionals. Curiosity about my diagnosis and prognoses for same-age lymphoma patients led me to research patient outcomes for my particular clinic. I was pleased to learn that although only a small data set existed, survival rates were good and I was optimistic about my own results. I encourage you to BE that warrior survivor who is inquisitive, discerning, organized and fierce in preparation for appointments and treatments–ready for battles to win the war against cancer.

Cancer is a horrible and terrifying disease. Yet millions of people have beaten the odds and beat cancer. Authority Magazine started a new series called “I Survived Cancer and Here Is How I Did It”. In this interview series, we are talking to cancer survivors to share their stories, in order to offer hope and provide strength to people who are being impacted by cancer today. As a part of this interview series, I had the pleasure of interviewing Jackie.

Jackie is an Educator of 15 years and loves the work she does with elementary students each day. In addition to teaching, she is a licensed school counselor, and University of Georgia Ph.D. graduate. A 13-year four-time survivor of Stage IV Lymphoma, she has seen her share of adversity but has not lost sight of her goals and a reimagined future to include volunteer opportunities in support of young adult cancer survivors like herself. Instead of overly reflecting on the sadness and loss caused by cancer, she tries to focus on the positive each day brings, with renewed motivation and inspiration.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! We really appreciate the courage it takes to publicly share your story. Before we start, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your background and your childhood backstory?

I am the product of a proud and active military family; I experienced growing up abroad, which truly enriched my upbringing. I hail from a close knit family and we try to gather as much as possible to stay connected. Experiencing a childhood between two countries with stark cultural contrasts left me with a love and passion for travel and new experiences which endures today! Time spent in the classroom with my grandmother at the age of five inspired me to become a teacher, so all my energy went towards this goal. Today, with three degrees under my belt, I continue to live my dream of educating and learning from our future leaders. I can truly say that my parents’ emphasis on discipline, education and faith prepared me for a life journey that has been full of twists and turns.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

I draw from dozens of life lesson quotes, but what sticks out most as I consider this question is: Press forward with faith, hope and expectation — one day or one moment at a time. The relevance for me centers on the word hope; despite disappointment, prognoses, multiple setbacks, and feeling stuck, I have found and continue to find ways to press forward. Without my will and motivation to get to the next ‘thing’, I fear I would be stagnant and constantly live in fear/worry of what’s to come. Although my focus is often on the next step I try to create balance with mindfulness to also appreciate the present moment.

Let’s now shift to the main part of our discussion about surviving cancer. Do you feel comfortable sharing with us the story surrounding how you found out that you had cancer?

Cancer came for me, hard. At the age of 29, following weeks of dealing with a flu-like illness, I found myself in the doctor’s office with my mom fervently advocating for my immediate admission to include urgent care. In contrast to the previously slow progression of care, things started happening very quickly. A surgeon told me I needed a surgical procedure to relieve pressure on my rapidly beating heart. I agreed, and soon after, I was in surgery, followed by an extended three-week stay in the ICU. My health was rapidly deteriorating and it was during this hospitalization that my doctors discovered the culprit: Stage IV non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma situated in my lungs. While sedated, the diagnosis was delivered, my family was notified, and treatment began–all before I awoke to learn what had transpired. To this day, I cannot recall a moment when I was told the words, “You have cancer;” I believe I was so out of it that it just escapes my memory.

What was the scariest part of that event? What did you think was the worst thing that could happen to you?

Not knowing what had occurred in the two-three weeks I was sedated was very scary. What had happened to me? Imagine being sedated for 2–3 weeks and waking up and learning that you now have stage IV cancer. That was me! I had no idea or understanding of what decisions had been made on my behalf and in my best interest-by family, by medical staff, or by strangers. I was oblivious to the fear that I believe might plague or paralyze the average patient because I was so ill, drugged, under sedation. And to be honest, I am thankful for this ignorant bliss, what I lovingly call ‘Jackie’s World’; in my moments of quiet reflection, I feel for my family and friends who experienced all of the emotional strain of my illness all that time, while I was sleeping. Maybe I had a very real fear of dying–of cancer taking over and losing myself or my life to this highly aggressive disease, but I don’t remember. I remember flashes of consciousness and my family tells me that I had many medications coming in through multiple IVs (intravenous needles) with medical staff closely monitoring my vitals and progress. I am so thankful for the expert care, family support and covering that allowed me to make it through this rocky period of my care!

How did you react in the short term?

“You were calm and focused on doing what needed to be done to get better,” I heard I told my parents in response to the initial diagnosis. This sounds just like me, naturally and eerily calm in the face of adversity, tragic news or challenges. Once, I stood looking at my car in a ditch and onlookers walked up to me, asking, “How are you so calm?” I don’t know how to explain it but I suppose it is my game face and all attempts to focus on solutions or at least the next steps. My approach to treatment was similar because whatever needed to be done to beat lymphoma was the route I would take! I would say that of course there was some initial shock and fear about my prognosis, but my oncologist told me I had a highly curable cancer. Her words, my otherwise good health, and quiet faith gave me HOPE that I would survive cancer.

After the dust settled, what coping mechanisms did you use? What did you do to cope physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually?

Compartmentalization coupled with faith in God helped me in my battle against cancer. Everything has its place, it’s own department in my mind. Physical Health. Check. Mental Health. Check. Financial Planning. Check. Career Decisions and Protection. Check. Student Status and Achievement. Check. Each department had only one chairperson — me. Therefore, one could take priority at any one time and you can guess which department/compartment received the majority of my attention: Physical Health. Everything else remained on the back burner until my physical health was out of crisis mode. During my breaks from physical health management and maintenance, I would focus on finances, job security, postgraduate studies, and lastly, psychological well being. In the months AFTER I finished my first round of treatments, I finally went to therapy and over a decade later, I am still working through the emotional aftermath of multiple bouts with Stage IV Non-Hodgkins Anaplastic Large Cell Lymphoma. (It’s a mouthful, isn’t it?) Simply put I tried to focus on God and stuffed things away in order to focus on the physical fight for my life, all while ignoring the mental/emotional/psychological needs of my soul. Looking back, perhaps this was not the best choice. Instead it was a knee jerk reaction and prolonged panic mode in which I lived for more than six years while in and out of treatment. I realize people may hesitate to participate in therapy and to them I’ll say this: I believe living and mental strife are inextricably tied. Why not select a therapist with objectivity and expertise about stress management to help you through particular challenges? The choice to find a mental health professional who is a good fit is an investment in YOU; go for it!

Is there a particular person you are grateful towards who helped you learn to cope and heal? Can you share a story about that?

I am grateful for my village. My mother put her life on pause to move in with me and become my official and accountable caregiver. (She even signed official caregiver documents required by my clinic!) My father repeatedly traversed the interstate between state lines to hold down the fort and the family near and far while everyone prayed and asked about Jackie. My brothers provided both spiritual and financial support and tried to be present while maintaining their lives and careers. My friends and coworkers prayed, supported my parents, offered financial support, helped to make sure I had a job to return to, donated blood and platelets, and checked on me constantly. My nursing staff became my BFFs because I was isolated from most people in my world to protect a compromised and newly birthed immune system. They offered consolation and laughter, issued directives, highly professional and precise medical care and encouraged me to remain positive. Skilled doctors implemented top notch care in the best facilities if you ask me. And finally, my GOD carried me; His Grace and Prayer brought me through. For this reason, I will say that I survived cancer because WE did it!

In my own cancer struggle, I sometimes used the idea of embodiment to help me cope. Let’s take a minute to look at cancer from an embodiment perspective. If your cancer had a message for you, what do you think it would want or say?

If cancer had a message for me, it would probably say the following:

Jackie, if you want to truly defeat me forever, tell your story and live every day to the fullest. Take advantage of every opportunity because no day is promised. Don’t ever forget me and don’t get too comfortable because whether you like it or not, our encounters have shaped you. I came for you four times; I gave it my best. I guess my work here is done; I want nothing more to do with you.

What did you learn about yourself from this very difficult experience? How has cancer shaped your worldview? What has it taught you that you might never have considered before? Can you please explain with a story or example?

In the Summer of 2009 following treatment, I resumed studies towards my Ph.D. in Educational Theory and Practice. It was a testament to my resilience and commitment to goals despite cancer. Because of cancer and multiple relapses, a program which should have been completed within six years took me ten years to finalize. In the Summer of 2017, I celebrated three milestones: my beautiful August birthday, completing my doctorate in Educational Theory and Practice AND being officially released by the transplant clinic oncology specialist! I learned that I am so much stronger than I ever knew; as Dad says, I’m a rockstar. Others look at me and maybe they wonder how I did it, how I can be where I am despite what I have been through. Tenacity! I certainly see things differently as a 13-year four time lymphoma survivor. Perhaps my trajectory shifted but cancer was unable to stop my movement through this world; I completed a terminal degree and resumed a teaching career that doctors feared I would no longer be able to do because of a less than perfect immune system. I learned that cancer has the ability to delay but not obliterate dreams; my goals still matter.

How have you used your experience to bring goodness to the world?

To give back, I try to mentor others; I connect with survivors seeking mutual understanding. Other survivors get it. I have participated in survivor retreats and support groups, in the roles of camper, volunteer, and leader. I am an active participant in organizations such as Young Women Crush Cancer based in Georgia and Project Koru (based in Oregon). Both organizations are all about meeting the needs of those diagnosed with cancer as young adults living purposeful, enjoyable lives. I find meaning in educating myself about challenges other survivors face and supporting them as they navigate life and cancer — this is how I am using my experience to bring goodness to the cancer community and beyond. Being able to share my experiences fighting cancer, donating my treasured time with eagerness, and helping others navigate their own journeys truly fills my bucket. My hope is those on the receiving end feel that my actions have benefitted them in some way. Oh and let’s not forget my favorite goodness to the world: I TEACH, which is my heart’s joy!

What are a few of the biggest misconceptions and myths out there about fighting cancer that you would like to dispel?

It is shocking to think about the hurdles I and other survivors have overcome along the way. My journey beyond cancer has shown me that cancer is not a death sentence and it does not have to be a life sentence either. If you ever hear the words, “You have cancer.” Listen, process, emote, then lift/turn your head and wait/plan for next steps. As long as there is a plan, there is hope and hope breeds life — renewed energy to fight and live in the way that is most meaningful to you. Hear me: People are LIVING (fully) with cancer!

Fantastic. Here is the main question of our interview. Based on your experiences and knowledge, what advice would you give to others who have recently been diagnosed with cancer? What are your “5 Things You Need To Beat Cancer? Please share a story or example for each.

  1. Educate yourself. Yes it can be frightening to do the web dive once you learn of a diagnosis because of the dearth of information (good and bad) instantly available to you and seeping into your consciousness. However, much of the information does NOT apply to you and it CAN put you in a negative space. Simultaneously, knowledge breeds curiosity and the most equipped cancer patients come with questions for their medical professionals. Curiosity about my diagnosis and prognoses for same-age lymphoma patients led me to research patient outcomes for my particular clinic. I was pleased to learn that although only a small data set existed, survival rates were good and I was optimistic about my own results. I encourage you to BE that warrior survivor who is inquisitive, discerning, organized and fierce in preparation for appointments and treatments–ready for battles to win the war against cancer.
  2. Advocate. Prepare to ask for what you need. Be assertive in your care and speak up when something feels uncertain, the wrong fit, or a scary next step for you. Ask questions and be unafraid to take a stand for your care. I was a reader, especially when it came to new prescriptions. I did not like the amount of medications I had to be on, so continually I asked questions about alternatives and potential drug and supplement interactions — requesting to speak to the pharmacist when needed. Additionally, I worried about nutrition because I wasn’t eating properly, so I scheduled a consultation with the hospital nutritionist. The consultation improved my mood and attitude regarding nutrition and cancer by offering suggestions on food choices, including protein shakes, and other quick ways to get nutrition into my body. Because my weight was up and mostly down, my body needed calories/fluids and fuel to manage the after effects of disease and an onslaught of medications.
  3. Remain active. Any small step or action to keep your body moving is beneficial for you (given the green light from your physician). If you can partner with someone to help you or hold you accountable for a reasonable amount of activity, this is even better! Fortunately, in the clinic where I spent A LOT of time (up to 8 hours daily), there was an exercise bicycle and enough space to walk slow laps with my IV pole. When I felt strong enough, I was highly motivated to get my blood flowing to promote healing and a positive mood (AND to pass the time). I received a lot of encouragement (and just a few surprised looks) as I peddled away during my day shifts in the clinic!
  4. Plan Self Care. Make plans in advance to do something for yourself, especially on scan days or appointment days. Or any day. Just because! The boost will energize you and offer something to look forward to when stress is high or the unknown is looming. When I was living a near normal life again, those 3–6–12 month scans would send me into an emotional whirlwind! So I would decide on a special meal or shopping adventure or fun activity with a friend afterwards. It really lifted my spirits and pushed me to think of something other than cancer care or potential bad news. Part of my planning and research included finding survivor resources of the fun and adventurous nature. There are many resources for all cancer survivors and thrivers, but especially those who are active and can get the necessary doctor’s clearance ;-) ! Do your research and consider organizations like Project Koru, First Descents, and Epic Experience, all of whom specialize in adventure camps for active cancer survivors. Who knows? You could end up on a surf or snowboard, skis, or a rock wall with amazing people like yourself living out loud with cancer or with cancer in the rear view!
  5. Connect. This leads me to my final piece of advice–CONNECT. In the beginning, you may retreat or withdraw. You may put on a face for those nearest you to spare them any agony, fear, anger or regret you feel. You may indulge in high risk behaviors to avoid the truth of your situation. You may feel your life spiraling out of control or eerily feel as if you see things clearly and everything begins to fall into place. I have heard of and/or seen each of these scenarios take place. Wherever you are with your emotional journey, please consider this: I believe at some point you will start to feel drawn to reconnect with those who know and love you the most or connect with strangers who understand or have experiences similar to your own. Listen and follow this urge and find your safe space to vent, to emote, connect, because an authentic network of humans could be your guiding light along this journey. Initially, I resisted joining a support group; I didn’t think it was for me so I chose individual therapy. (It’s okay, go for individual or group therapy! Why not try both?!) Eventually, I tried a group session, but didn’t feel as if I belonged due to my age and race. Often in my clinic and support arenas, few African Americans attended and most participants were much older than me. However, when I was accepted to cancer retreats with young, active survivors like myself, I found active and adventurous young people like myself! At your own pace, I hope you will begin talking with others who truly get it.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the greatest amount of people, what would that be?

I want people to TAKE FIVE every day. Incorporate five cancer fighting foods into your daily diet and once you master that, add five more and finally five more! It is easier than you think. Almonds, berries, ginger, honey, turmeric come to mind without me even blinking. A quick google search for anti-cancer foods will lead you to resources like MD Anderson, WebMD, AICR (American Institute for Cancer Research) to point you in the right direction! If we could all start here, refocusing our sights on cancer prevention rather than cancer treatment or survivorship, then what an impact this shift could make!

We are very blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them. :-)

I would love to sit down with Robin Roberts! She and I both call Pass Christian, MS, home and my cancer journey was similar in some ways to hers. She and her books helped me to get through some tough moments and it makes me so proud to see her living her dreams beyond cancer as I aspire to do continually. Her words helped me to remain optimistic and productive throughout my journey. I’ll never forget how Robin Roberts inspired so many with her very public bout with cancer to include stem cell transplantation (JUST LIKE ME) and getting back to meaningful careers, activities and life goals!

How can our readers further follow your work online?

I have published a few blogs online through the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society, Northside Hospital, Project Koru and Cure Today, but the digital footprint of my story is relatively small. Even now, I share bits and pieces because there is so much to my journey. My hope is that family perspectives of cancer survival receive more attention because this is the wealth of knowledge I believe can greatly impact individual outcomes. It would be a dream come true to implement such a program in local communities. I have ideas! Multiple nurses have said to me that patients’ mindset can make a big difference and family/friend support can be a major influence on patient attitudes. Next steps for me include providing individualized academic support for students through my LLC, Heard Innovative Solutions (heardllc@gmail.com), AND continuing to use my voice, time and talents to meet the varying needs of other survivors along their cancer journey. It is an honor to share my story through Authority Magazine and I feel positive that the world will hear more from me. Thank you for the opportunity to tell your readers how I beat cancer–with the help of my amazing village and divine intervention!

Thank you so much for sharing these important insights. We wish you continued success and good health!

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