June 14, 2008

A Walk to Remember

By Rebecca Hattaway, Claremore Daily Progress, Okla.

Jun. 14--On Friday, June 20, when Jacquelyn Willis walks the Survivors' Lap to help kick off the annual Rogers County Relay For Life, she will be celebrating her cure from Hodgkin's Lymphoma.

"Last year when I did the survivors' walk, I was still on chemo," she said.

Willis was just 24 when she was diagnosed with Stage 4 Hodgkin's Lymphoma in 2007.

After months of chemotherapy, Willis' PET scan in March showed the cancer was gone.

Now 26, Willis has been a participant in Relay For Life for several years as a member of the team "Wilma's Angels."

"I really wanted to be a part of it more this year," she said, "so when they asked if I would be in charge of accounting, I said yes."

Through her personal experience, Willis said she has become more aware of the importance of the community coming together to raise money for cancer research.

"For me, 10 years ago my disease was 10 percent curable. Through research funded by the American Cancer Society, it has went up to 90 percent curable," she said. "I'm living proof of that. I encourage other people to get involved and give their money and time -- whatever they can."

It was 2006 when Willis, then pregnant with her daughter Brynlea, started having severe back pain.

"It was hard to just sit in a chair," she recalled.

After a MRI, the neurologist told Willis the baby was on her sciatic nerve, causing the pain.

"Then I started getting itchy skin and losing weight toward the end of my pregnancy," she said.

When Brynlea was born on Oct. 5, 2006, Willis was hopeful everything would return to normal, but instead her health began deteriorating even faster.

"I started having nightsweats and lost 32 pounds the first month after the baby was born," she said. "I thought I might be anemic. At (Brynlea's) first month check-up I asked her physician about it and he felt like it was postpartum issues. I also had lumps in neck and he said it was probably just a cyst."

Then in December she went to Immediate Care with walking pneumonia and bronchitis.

The doctor discovered her heart was enlarged and sent her to a cardiologist in Tulsa.

"They did some tests and asked me if I had felt sick, which I hadn't," she said. "They told me to go to the emergency room if I did."

At 10 p.m. on Feb. 23, 2007, she was admitted to the emergency room at Hillcrest in Tulsa.

Following CT scans, the doctor returned to her room at 3 a.m. and gave her the news.

"He said, 'we think you have cancer,'" she said. "I don't remember anything after that moment."

It was two days later that they were able to determine what kind of cancer it was.

On Feb. 26 she was diagnosed with Stage 4 Hodgkin's Lymphoma.

"The doctor said it was more curable than Non-Hodgkin's so I was relieved, but I was more nervous for my daughter than for me," she said. "All I prayed was, 'just let me raise my daughter.'"

That very day she started chemotherapy, with treatments continuing every 14 days for six months.

"I would get home from chemo, and if I was sick, (Brynlea) would sleep all day. On days I felt well enough to get up, she would be up with me. She really was what helped me get through this -- my something to live for," Willis said. "I just know God was with us. I don't even remember the pain, the bad days."

Aug. 1, 2007 was her last chemotherapy treatment.

"When the chemo stopped, I was still tired but things started looking up a month after -- there were just two tumors left," she said.

She continued to have check-ups every three months. At her PET scan in March of this year, her doctor gave her the "all clear."

"It was like having a huge burden lifted off," she said. "I feel like I've got my daughter for a little bit longer."

In April, she became engaged to Bryan Jones, a childhood friend she had become reacquainted with during her illness.

"He was in another state, but when he heard I was sick he got in touch and we started talking every day," she said. "Besides Brynlea being there for me physically; he was there for me mentally. They were my two angels through the whole thing."

She was also supported by members of the community who raised money for her.

"I worked at RCB Bank for seven years and they did a fundraiser for me," she said. "Kim Caldwell who still works there did a candle sale that raised so much money. A lot of people came through for me that I didn't even know.

"There was not one time I was hurting for food, money for bills, or friendship. So many people reached out their hand and prayed for me. I wouldn't be where I am now with people helping financially and emotionally."


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