Smiling at Breast Cancer Scars: A Checklist

Jackie Scully’s body is a jigsaw of scars from her collarbone to her hipbones. A constellation of scars on her obliques, a straight slash from hip to hip, a scar over her right breast, a thick glossy scar on her collarbone, and criss-cross scars over her lower hip and the top of her leg. Jackie sees each scar as a trophy for living through whatever life throws at her.

She says, “Under my clothes, I feel like a bit of a warrior…I feel like I can take on anything.”

Last Christmas Eve, Jackie relaxed at home just outside London with her boyfriend Duncan. Leading up to her favorite time of year Jackie spent months preparing for the holidays: hand-making 200 presents for friends and family, decorating, baking, and shopping. And now she had a few days off from her hectic career in the publishing world. Time, she told herself, to take a breath and focus on her personal life. In hindsight, Jackie says the 32 year old woman sitting by the Christmas tree had lost sight of everything in her life that was important. She also says life didn’t believe she would slow down in the new year.

So life interjected on her behalf.

On Christmas Eve, in the shower, Jackie found a lump in her right breast.

On January 17, her doctor confirmed Jackie had stage 2 breast cancer. The tumor grew rapidly and Jackie was soon diagnosed as stage 3.

After living through major hip reconstruction six years prior, Jackie knew what had to be done if she wanted to come out smiling on the other side of treatment. It would entail listening to her doctors but just as important it entailed changing HOW she lived her life.

She asked herself, “What is it I want my gravestone to say?” In an instant, she transformed her life to make sure life improved despite breast cancer. Following are the steps Jackie has taken since January so she can keep smiling and beat breast cancer.

SEIZE THE DAY

Jackie says until this year, “I worked so hard I had many engagements with friends I missed. I was the one not at the barbeque. I was the one who almost always had an excuse for something. And now I realize there are so many things in life I’ve wanted to do. Simple things like watch tennis at Wimbledon which is just down the road.”

Within weeks of her diagnosis, Jackie wrote the Brighter Life List: an eclectic list of goals. She posted it online rather than tuck it away in a notebook as a way to hold herself accountable. “I’ve got all my friends calling me up and asking me what have you done? And challenging me and I am continuously adding to it.” In 2014 while undergoing chemo and radiation, Jackie ticked 5 of 45 items from the list.

BECOME A LADY OF LEISURE

Jackie and Duncan took a few days away from hospitals and work this summer; one night on vacation they played pool. Jackie says, “It had been so long since I’d played I’d forgotten how to set up the table. I realized then it’s not always about trying to achieve something and ticking something off the list, but kicking off your shoes and having a laugh because after that you’re ready for all the other stuff.”

Before Jackie’s diagnosis, she neglected her leisure time seeing it “as a waste of time.”

She now knows the only way to a happier existence is beginning with herself and only then as she emanates that happiness can she be in the right place to help others. Jackie says, “I allocate a chunk of time every day to reading and to whatever makes me who I am.”

TELL BAD JOKES

On Jackie’s blog, she jokes about taking her shirt off for the oncologist in the morning and her pants off for the fertilization specialist in the afternoon, hair loss, baking for strangers, and the surrealistic situations we find ourselves living through.

She says, “I’ve always used humor when I’m nervous and in a hospital scenario I’d joke around and the nurses would look at me like, “God, are you really going to say that? Humor puts me at ease and it’s like leading by example. If I emanate a bubbly, energetic personality, the people around me actually become that way and then I have people to bounce off when I’m feeling a bit sad.”

FIGHT FIRE WITH FIRE

Jackie hadn’t played sports since high school and she surprised everyone, even herself, when she decided to take herself on a run last spring. She ignored the voice that told her she’d rather lay in bed and she ignored her troublesome reconstructed hip; she ran despite the chemo side effects. She decided to treat her body with extra love by running around the park by her house almost everyday. The doctors asked her if she was an athlete. She said nope. But she committed herself to the challenge. Jackie says, “I said, right, I’m training for a 10 K and I did and it’s the BEST decision I’ve ever made.”

Coming through the finish line, not only had she found a new passion but she raised over £2000 ($3300) for breast cancer research. “Running clears my head, gives me real focus for the day, and keeps my weight down and now it will always be a part of my life.”

Her next race: Run To The Beat 10K on September 14th to celebrate the end of active treatment the following day.

REIGNITE RELATIONSHIPS

Over the last nine months, Jackie says, “It has been such a wonderful, wonderful period for reconnecting with people. I’ve seen people this year I hadn’t seen in 14 years.”

She started a blog to keep friends and family up-to-date on her treatments and daily life with breast cancer. As people read her words, she received overwhelming support: an outpouring of cards, messages, cookies, cakes, flowers, and gifts from friends and strangers.

In turn she reestablished closeness with family and friends strengthening it even further with her Pink Hearts Campaign. Jackie handcrafts and hand-delivers fluffy pink hearts to people who have touched her life, “be it a nurse, a surgeon, a friend.” Each heart is accompanied by a piece of paper with a generic message on where to hang it, what the heart means, and reminding her friend to seize the day. On the back she writes her reflections on her relationship with that person.

Instead of asking friends and family for pledges of money for the race in September, Jackie proposed something else to her friends. She asked for pledges of drinks rather than money. For each pledge from a friend, she will donate her own money to breast cancer research. And instead of having one big party at the end of active treatment, Jackie plans on visiting each friend collecting on their pledge of wine, cocktails, and cups of tea over the next year.

CREATE. CREATE. CREATE

Jackie’s loves to bake. Not only that, she loves to create original baked goods. Through chemo, she lost her taste buds which made everything taste metallic or like cardboard.

She explains, “Chemo day was always a sad day so I went in search of the ultimate ginger chemo cookie. Ginger is really good for nausea. I got people from all over the world to send me recipes for ginger biscuits and I’ve been baking them and testing them out on the ward.” The day of her last chemo treatment, she made a sponge cake covered in 450 little fondant tablets which as she says, “went over so well in the ward.”

GIVE, GIVE, GIVE

Jackie always wanted to take her lifelong love of writing and write a book; now with a new-found calling, she has decided to publish a book about smiling through serious illness. All proceeds go to breast cancer charities. With a passion for breast cancer awareness and fundraising, she says, “I’ve always been supportive of people but now I’m focused on four charities to help raise money, providing blogging strategy, and writing for some others. I’m using my professional skills in a charitable light.” She is also a ‘boobette’ – one of a team of women who visits schools to talk to young women about the importance and methods for breast examinations.

PULL IT TOGETHER aka GET SOME PERSPECTIVE

After diagnosis but before her first chemo treatment, Jackie underwent fertilization treatment. Women in their thirties often lose their chance to bear children because of the effects of chemotherapy on their ovaries.

Her biggest piece of advice for her future son or daughter?

“Think about: Who are the people that are going to stand by you? Who are the people that are going to make you smile? What do you want out of life? Just go out and find it.”

“And to think about your life in terms of “What do you want your gravestone to say?”

She says, “I’ve always hankered after the big things in life, the vacations, the job promotions but what I should have focused on is the smell of homemade bread and the smell of fresh cut grass because this is what my happiest days are made of. Life is about taking in what is beautiful in the simple way and everything else is a bonus. Keeping that in mind is where people find happiness.”

What are your happiest days made of, dear reader?

As always thanks for reading. For more scar stories about people who now look outward and upward, check out my book Who I Am: American Scar Stories