|Summer 2010-Survivor Profile|
Yolanda Jackson was alone in a St. Louis hotel room when she learned that she had cancer. It was 2004, and she was on a work trip, finishing up her first week at a new job after moving to Birmingham.
Before leaving for St. Louis, Ms. Jackson had visited her doctors in her hometown of Auburn for an annual gynecologic exam. “I always did them around my birthday because it was easy to remember,” she says. “That turned out to be a life-saving thing to do.”
Those doctors felt a lump in one of Ms. Jackson’s breasts. Following an ultrasound and a mammogram, the radiologist confirmed that the lump had to come out, whether it was cancer or not. Knowing that she was headed to St. Louis, Ms. Jackson requested an immediate biopsy—and when she received the phone call with her results, she was stunned.
“I was diagnosed with stage 3 infiltrating breast carcinoma. I had no idea what that meant, but I knew it was serious,” Ms. Jackson says. “By the grace of God, my new home was in Birmingham. I couldn’t have asked to be near a better facility to receive my treatments than UAB.”
Ms. Jackson, who was 34 at the time, soon had an appointment at the UAB Comprehensive Cancer Center’s Breast Health Center, located in The Kirklin Clinic®. There she saw Cancer Center senior scientist and hematologist-oncologist Andres Forero, M.D., who explained that one option for treatment was to enroll in a clinical trial. Ms. Jackson did not hesitate to sign up. “I was very willing to participate in a clinical trial,” she says. “While it might not help me, it might help someone else.”
Ms. Jackson began an aggressive regimen of ACT (Adriamycin, Cytoxan and Taxol) chemotherapy. The tumor responded extremely well to the treatments, and she elected to undergo a bilateral mastectomy under the care of Cancer Center scientist and breast surgeon Helen Krontiras, M.D. Afterward, Ms. Jackson completed 36 rounds of radiation therapy with Cancer Center associate scientist and radiation oncologist Jennifer De Los Santos, M.D. Ms. Jackson tolerated her treatments fairly well, and they were so successful that she was declared cancer-free in late 2005.
During her treatment, Ms. Jackson chose to have genetic testing performed and learned that she was positive for the BRCA-1 gene. Part of a class of genes known as tumor suppressors, BRCA-1 (as well as its counterpart, BRCA-2) helps to ensure the stability of genetic material and helps to prevent uncontrolled cell growth in normal cells. However, women inheriting a mutated version of this gene face an increased risk of developing breast and/or ovarian cancer, especially at an early age. The mutated genes often appear in multiple family members, and sure enough, both of Ms. Jackson’s sisters also tested positive for BRCA-1. In fact, her younger sister, Tiffany, was diagnosed with breast cancer just three months prior to Ms. Jackson, and her older sister Tressy elected to have a bilateral mastectomy after testing positive for BRCA-1.
Speaking to Life
Cancer was an emotional experience for Ms. Jackson. “When you’re told you have cancer, you think ‘How am I going to do this?’ You realize you don’t have control of anything but your thoughts, and that you have to rely on a higher power and trust your doctors,” she says.
Ms. Jackson credits her family, her friends, her faith and the Cancer Center’s doctors and nurses for helping her fight the disease. “The staff was so knowledgeable and thorough,” she says. “I’ve never been in a place where every person I came into contact with was so genuinely kind and encouraging. I thought, ‘How can everyone be so wonderful?’ That’s not me overstating it, either. Showing up to receive my chemo was like stopping by to visit with my girlfriends. Everyone at the Cancer Center is like an old friend.”
Since beating cancer, Ms. Jackson has become a patient advocate, making herself available to talk to others facing the disease. “I encourage them and answer any questions,” she says. “I try to be a source of support because I remember what it was like to be by myself after everyone else had gone home.”
Ms. Jackson has since moved back to Auburn, where she does freelance consulting work in human resource management. An avid reader and music lover, she is looking forward to a summer trip to Panama to visit her best friend. She and her younger sister also will attend a cancer retreat in Utah. Mrs. Jackson says that connecting with other cancer patients and survivors and sharing her own experiences and lessons is extremely important to her.
“Your mental state plays a big part in the healing process,” she says. “One of my favorite songs while I was going through treatment was a gospel song called ‘I Speak Life’ by Donald Lawrence. Some of the lyrics are ‘I speak life/Don't give up the fight for your life/You shall live and not die.’ I’ll speak to anyone anywhere about cancer. You never know whom it might help.”