Valdosta Daily Times

October 15, 2012

Jackson celebrating the joy of living

Kay Harris
The Valdosta Daily Times

VALDOSTA — Talking with Julienne Jackson about her story of survival, the word “joy” keeps coming to mind, as she simply embodies the principal of joyful living. Every day is a blessing and a gift.

Jackson was just 47 when she discovered a lump in her breast by accident, and in three short weeks between the biopsy and the surgery, the cancer progressed from Stage 1A to Stage 2B. The cancer was in two of her lymph nodes and the entire breast had to be removed. What followed was months of uncertainty, chemotherapy, and radiation, followed by a nearly two year journey to have reconstructive surgery, twice, and recent cancer scares. And yet her sense of humor and dignity has remained intact.

Jackson, married since 1982 to Ralph Jackson, the former director of Habitat for Humanity in Lowndes County, has three children, sons Brandon, 27 and Jordan, 20, and daughter Madison, 14.

“Madison was only 8 or 9 when I was diagnosed in 2007, and she was very nervous that she was going to ‘catch’ it from me. She’s adopted and we’re her second family, so was fearful she was going to lose me too,” Jackson said.

While talking with Jackson, she sometimes appears to be at a loss for words, which she explains as “chemo brain,” a side effect of all the cancer medication that she likens to early onset Alzheimer’s.

“My brain didn’t come all the way back and I have issues with word recall, but I just work through it until I find another word that will work.”

She recounts a story of trying to write a check soon after her treatment and forgetting how to write the word “sixty.”

“I broke down. It was so embarrassing, but I’ve learned to work through it.”

Jackson had surgery in May 2007, started chemotherapy in June, and finished her radiation in December. She has to have blood work annually so her doctor’s can assess her cancer markers, and she had a recent cancer scare that led to a hysterectomy.

“I”ll always have to look over my shoulder, for the rest of my life,” she says, adding, “I tell people ‘Don’t fear cancer. Fear not doing something about it.’ The alternatives are so much worse.”

Jackson has beautiful, nearly waist- length blond hair that she typically keeps pinned up in a bun while at work at the Valdosta State University Public Administration office. She lost “every bit of it” during her treatments, including her eyebrows and her eyelashes, but wore a wig to keep “from looking like a Q-tip!”

“You don’t realize how great it feels to have hair until you don’t have it anymore!”

Jackson said when her hair grew back, it came back new, like “baby’s” hair, very fine and soft, and it even grows faster now. When asked it it came back different, she replies with a smile that it grew back darker than her natural blonde, but “there are tools to take care of that!”

Today she can feel the wind blowing through her luxurious tresses whenever she drives. Her church held a silent auction in 2010 and she bought a Volvo convertible.

“When I’m driving it, I feel alive. I love the wind gusting through my hair!”

As soon as she was declared cancer-free, she and husband Ralph left for England and France for two weeks to celebrate. Making definite plans following treatment is one of the things she counsels others to do to have something to work towards and to help keep their minds occupied during treatment.

Jackson has also served as an inspiration to others through her church and friends. She has a “cancer camisole” that she bought when undergoing treatments that helped hold all the tubes, etc. in place and the camisole has been passed among ladies at her church undergoing breast cancer treatment.

“It’s been through 6 or 7 of us so far, and every one of us has survived. You take every shred of hope that you can hang onto.”

Jackson also gives friends who are newly diagnosed a copy of the book, “Chicken Soup for the Breast Cancer Survivor’s Soul.”

“I cried when I read it, but you felt their joy and their pain, and every woman going through this should read it.”

Jackson is doing everything she can to help others, from raising money and participating annually in the American Cancer Society’s Relay for Life, to running/walking the entire 60 miles of a Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Walk in Tampa, Fla. in 2008.

“I had a friend in Tampa with breast cancer and she didn’t make it, so I had her photo printed on a t-shirt and carried it with me for both of us.”

With no history of breast cancer in her family, Jackson said the disease is a silent one that can affect anyone, anytime.

“I had just had my annual checkup when I found the lump. It came on that fast. Even my surgeon, Dr. Dallas Miller, couldn’t believe I had breast cancer because I was not in any risk group for it.”

Jackson said she’s lucky, happy, and excited to be alive and healthy today, and advises breast cancer patients to have goals, listen to their doctors, but don’t listen to those with sad stories.

“When you’re going through breast cancer, the last thing you need are people coming up and telling you sad stories. You should hear positive things only. I would tell those people that the story they had was indeed very sad, and then I’d forget it and let it roll off me,” she said.

“Don’t let someone else’s horror invade you. Keep your positive attitude.”