Jacqueline Howard has a smile as bright as the sun. It lights up a room and warms the hearts of everyone inside. Because her joy overflows, most people assume she hasn’t experienced much pain. But behind her smile lies a deeper story. At the age of 12, her mother suddenly passed away. And by the time Howard reached 30, she had attended funerals for her father and sister as well. Over the years, she learned to be strong in order to survive. And that strength helped her live life. She obtained two degrees, got married, and gave birth to a son. Life was becoming better each day. Then, she received more bad news. Her doctor diagnosed her with Breast Cancer, and she stopped being strong. Instead, she decided to surrender it all to God and smile.
Diary of a First Time Mom is inspired by her story and proud to honor her as DFTM’s Mom of the Week. The following may bring you to tears, but by the end of the post, you too will be smiling.
What is the best thing about being a mother?
The best thing about being a mom is the love I have for my son. He is the first person I have ever loved unconditionally. I also enjoy watching him grow and develop his own personality over the years—he’s now three. He is very outgoing, adventurous and funny. He literally makes me laugh and smile every day. I feel blessed to have him. He has given my life tremendous joy.
When did you find out you had cancer? What was your initial reaction?
I was diagnosed with cancer in August 2011. I first noticed the lump in 2009. I made an appointment with my OBGYN and was referred to a breast specialist. By the time I had a biopsy and ultrasound, the lump had disappeared, so the doctor dismissed it as a cyst. This is totally common, especially for women under the age of 50.
Rewind to April 2011. That’s when I began to feel discomfort in my right breast during menstrual cycles. The pain eventually became more frequent, and by June I could feel the lump again. Annoyed by the pain, I scheduled another appointment. By now the lump was very noticeable. The specialist assured me that due to my age (I was only 30) it was probably nothing. She told me it was only about a 15 percent chance it was cancer. I had the biopsy completed on August 17 and received the results on August 22 at around 4 p.m.
I remember the exact time, because I was in the middle of a meeting at work when she called my cell phone. Knowing it was her, I excused myself and took the call. She told me I had breast cancer. I asked her what we would do next. She told me that I need to have an MRI completed, and we have a follow-up appointment. By this time, my brain stopped working. I was on auto pilot. I thanked her for the call. Put on my game face and went back into my meeting.
A lot has happened since then. I learned that I have Stage II invasive ductal carcinoma grade III cancer in my breast. I have one main lump (3.5 centimeters) and four smaller lesions (yes, it spread in my breast!) A very small amount spread to my lymph nodes. met with numerous doctors to obtain second opinions,and they all told me aggressive treatment is needed due to my age and the type of cancer. Since August, I have completed five months of chemotherapy, a mastectomy and started radiation therapy. In December, I will have a mastectomy of my left breast and reconstructive surgery.
Most moms are exhausted from the day-to-day task of raising their children. How did the cancer affect your energy/mood?
The hardest part of this process has been the chemotherapy. As mentioned, I completed five months of chemo. The treatment included several drugs, and some were harder than others. The first two months were the worse. I had infusion once every two weeks. I felt like I was being poisoned, and it took me a while to recover from the treatment. The infusion took place on Friday, and I did not feel normal again until the following Friday. During that time, I would rest and drink lots of fluids. My husband has been a HUGE blessing through this entire process. He took care of me and our son. He was there to clean up my mess from vomiting as well as play with our son. I also had the support of family and friends. My girlfriends are AMAZING. During chemo, they would watch my son, clean my house or just sit with me.
You seem to always be smiling in your pictures, which is very inspiring to others I’m sure. What puts a smile on your face?
I am smiling because I have joy that surpasses all understanding. I’ve always believed in God and been a spiritual person, but cancer gave me a HUNGER to know God intimately. There were times when I became so afraid. I was very afraid of the unknown: Would chemo hurt? How would I look without hair? Would surgery hurt? Would I hate my body without breasts? Would I die? If I die, who would take care of my husband and son?
I asked God to take the fear from me and give me peace. I started praying more, reading the Bible, attending church and listening to gospel music. I even listen to sermons at work. I learned that the cancer diagnosis from the doctors is fact, but God’s word is the truth. According to the Bible, I am healed because Jesus died on the cross. To help myself remain focused on that truth I posted healing Bible scriptures in my car, my closet at home and my desk at work. Whenever I felt afraid I would speak the scriptures. After saying it for several months the words really became planted in my soul, and today I KNOW I am healed. I have also surrendered my life to God and asked that his will be done. As long as I am following God’s plan, I know I will have victory. That makes me smile.
I know this sounds crazy, but I am a better person because of cancer. I have always been a strong, driven person. My mom, sister and father died all before I turned 30, and I survived it by being strong. Cancer taught me to stop being strong and surrender. I learned to be weak and give all of my concerns, hurt and pain to God. I could not conquer cancer alone. I needed God to carry that burden for me. Now, I have an intimate relationship with God and my goals and priorities have changed. In the past my goals included climbing the corporate ladder, getting a bigger house, newer car, participating in a million committees at church and my sorority. God was not on my priority list. Healing from cancer taught me to simplify and put first things first. Now I focus on my relationship with God, family and living my purpose. I do not allow outside things to take precedence over those three.
How did you remain focused on your children and not the disease?
I decided that I would not let cancer change who I am. I refused to let cancer become my story. I was able to focus on my life and son, because I kept moving forward as if I were already healed. It is easy to get depressed and have a pity party, so I made special rules.
a. I continued to work full-time. I LOVE my job, so going to work gave me something to look forward to and motivated me to recover faster.
b. I must wear make-up and get dressed every day. This reminded me to continue to care about my appearance. This is huge, since I lost my hair.
c. I kept a routine with my son. We continued to have play dates, attend birthday parties, and go to Sunday school. If I was unable to participate, my family took him to the events. I wanted to make sure he remained a kid throughout this experience.
Did being a mother give you more ammunition to battle breast cancer? Did it change your outlook on your diagnosis?
Langston is a HUGE part of my ammunition to beat breast cancer. My mother passed when I was 12, so I know how it feels to grow up without a mother. I do not want that for my son. I want to be there to help him learn how to ride a bike, help him practice for the spelling bee, watch him play sports, graduate from high school and get married. My greatest desire is to meet my great-grandchildren.
Since my son was only 2 when I was diagnosed, I couldn’t explain it to him a ton. I had my family keep him on days when I was recovering from chemo or surgery. I did not want him to see me sick. Before my surgery, I told him that I was “getting rid of my right breast.” Then after surgery, he saw the scar and asked me what happened. I told him, I got rid of the breast because it was bad. He asked me if the doctor did it…I told him yes. He asked me if the doctor used a knife…I told him yes. He asked me if it hurt…I told him no (that was an honest answer, the surgery was not painful.) Throughout this process, I have tried to remain honest with my son. I let him know that “Mommy has a boo boo” when I can’t pick him up. Langston is very understanding.
What support did you receive?
I have received an OVERWHELMING amount of support. It is really a blessing.
Family: My husband attended all of my doctor appointments and was there to wipe my tears and push me forward when I was afraid. My sister and brother were also very encouraging and helped me remain positive. My in-laws cooked dinner for me helped with my son.
Girlfriends: I have the best group of friends. They all stepped up and helped me with Langston, cooked and cleaned.
Colleagues: My job has been AWESOME though this entire experience. They have been very understanding and allowed me to work from home on days when I felt too weak to come to the office. They also did cool things like decorate my cube after I finished chemo.
My friends, family and strangers have also been very supportive by participating in my Relay for Life team with the American Cancer Society. All things work together for the good of those who love the Lord and are called according to his purpose. That is one of my favorite Bible verses from the book of Romans. To me it means that no matter what bad things happens in my life, God has a way of turning it into something good. Thus far, my team, Jack’s Joy Warriors is in first place and has raised more than $12,000 for the American Cancer Society, and we hope to raise $20,000 by June. The goal of my Relay team is to help raise awareness and find a cure for this disease.
I saw a picture of you at the barbershop smiling while having your head shaved. Talk about that experience. Why did you make that choice? Why have your openly shared your story online?
Shaving my hair was not a huge deal for me. I have zero commitment to hair. In the past, I have worn weaves, had it short, and dyed a bunch of different colors. I honestly feel I am beautiful with or without hair. I shaved it because the hair was starting to fall out and I wanted to control the process. Instead of holding onto the hair that was left, I decided to shave it all off. For most of my chemo treatment, I wore my bald head and did not wear wigs or hats. It shocked some people at first, but eventually everyone got used to it. I enjoyed the bald head because it made a statement and showcased my true beauty and confidence.
I decided to share my story online because I want people to TALK about cancer. There is this lack of information and awareness about cancer in the African-American community. Here are a few stats to keep in mind:
· African-American women under age 35 have rates of breast cancer two times higher than Caucasian women under age 35.
· African-American women under age 35 die from breast cancer three times as often as Caucasian women of the same age.
· Researchers believe that access to healthcare and the quality of healthcare available may explain these disparities, although scientists continue to investigate.1 Research also shows that young, African-American women are more likely to get aggressive forms of breast cancer than anyone else.
I hope by sharing my story, other women will do self examinations more often, eat healthier and enjoy life. I also want my life to be a testimony of what God can do. I have been to hell and back and I still have joy. I hope that encourages other people to have a positive attitude and conquer their fears and obstacles.
You can help raise awareness and raise money for the fight against breast cancer by donating to Jacqueline’s Relay for Life Team. Help her meet her goal by logging onto her American Cancer Society page and clicking “Donate on My Behalf.”