Witherspoon emerges from breast cancer fight

Wednesday, October 5, 2016
Jackie Ryan Witherspoon is a breast cancer survivor. After being diagnosed with the disease in January 2012, completing surgery, chemo, enduring many side effects including nausea, pain, the loss of taste, the loss of her hair, and her magazine, she found a new calling inside a small room with other women battling the disease, and emerged from the experience with a book, "The Survivor's Walk," to encourage women who have found themselves on the same path. Contributed photo

Book author cites attitude as most important weapon to battle cancer

Jackie Ryan Witherspoon is a survivor -- a breast cancer survivor.

She not only survived, but emerged from the dark tunnel of that experience with a book to help other women dealing with the traumas of the dreaded disease.

"It never would've entered my mind I would write a book about breast cancer, because we think, 'That's not going to happen to us,'" Witherspoon said. "I had always wanted to write a book, but when you have a younger family and kids, you need that steady paycheck. But now, I have the time to do it."

Originally from Kansas, Witherspoon and her husband retired to Shell Knob last year, where they vacationed for the last 20 years. She had absolutely no family history of the disease, other than two aunts.

"My doctor said aunts are not a strong connection," she said. "A lot of people think they're safe if it's not in your family, but the doctors said they are seeing a lot of women without it in their family, so I can't stress enough how important mammograms are."

In January 2012, at the age of 61 while still living in Kansas, her world changed when she discovered a lump after moving, which she chalked up to a strained muscle. She was due for a mammogram, so she set one up.

"After the procedure, the nurse said, 'Let's do a sonogram,' and I was thinking, 'It's probably nothing,' and then she called the radiologist in, and they suggested seeing a specialist in Kansas City," she said. "I had a biopsy and MRI the same day, and they found a lump in the other breast as well, so everything spiraled down very quickly from there."

Shocked, Witherspoon had a difficult time accepting what was happening.

"The most important disease I'd had was the flu, that you know you'll get over," she remembers thinking after receiving the diagnosis. "So having a doctor talking to me about 'survival rates,' that was like someone throwing ice cold water in your face. I still kept denying it, right up to the night before I had surgery."

The doctors scheduled a surgery to remove the cancer, but for four months later, and that was much too long to wait, Witherspoon said.

"It was constantly on my mind, dominating my every thought, and I wanted this out of my body immediately," she said. "So, we called the doctor and they moved the surgery up to two weeks."

Before the diagnosis, Witherspoon was a busy journalism professional, writing for newspapers and her own magazine, Southeast Kansas Living.

"A year after going into breast cancer, I sold the magazine," she said. "The physical work of running around doing stories, checking on advertisers, it was just too much."

For treatment, Witherspoon completed six weeks of what she calls big chemo, where she sat in a room once a week for six weeks for infusions with other women who had breast cancer, which was the beginning of a journey that would lead to her second career as a novelist.

"First, I started writing in a journal," she said. "My treatments were three-and-one-half hours, so with that much time on your hands, I started taking notice of the conversations around me."

Women of all different ages and backgrounds, but in the same boat, talked while receiving chemo.

"Everyone was in a different place in life," she said. "We would talk about what we were going through: losing our hair, our taste buds changing, our feet hurting and the side effects. One woman always brought brownies, and we couldn't taste chocolate anymore. But, we just really learned from each other and developed friendships. When you go through something traumatic, you get really close.

"We probably talked about the loss of our hair more than anything, because for a woman, that's really traumatic. One woman said, 'Go get a wig right now, you'll want it.' I thought your hair would just get thinner until it was gone. But I had a full head of hair one day, and was shampooing it, and it all came out in one hand. It was really shocking. But, the wig was cuter than my hair had been."

On March 9, 2012, Witherspoon had surgery remove the cancer, along with a double mastectomy.

"The surgeons said if we find it has spread to lymph nodes during surgery, we'll have a whole different ball game on our hands," she said. "I thought, 'I don't want to have to worry about this. 'So for me, the mastectomy was the way to go. I had reconstructive surgery the same day."

Now, Witherspoon returns every six months for a follow up, but some of the women she met did not survive.

"One was a young mother," she said. "It's really sad."

Witherspoon completed another type of chemo for a year afterward to ensure all cancer cells were eliminated, and tried to move on with life.

"When I finished with chemo, I started reading though my journal thinking, 'There's stuff here that will help other people because it wasn't just my story,'" she said. "The women [in my book] are a compilation of those dialogues. They're not actual people to protect their privacy. I'm kind to of all of them."

The most important piece of advice Witherspoon has for women battling breast cancer is to have a good attitude.

"You hear that, but don't really get how important that is," she said. "Some women I met didn't handle it well, because they had already convinced themselves they weren't going to. The survival rates [today] are so much higher.

"I had a mantra I said every morning -- I am healthy, I am healing and I am strong. Any little thing you can do to keep positive helps, and that's really hard when you're going through something like this. But, I do think the brain and body hears what you're thinking."

Witherspoon's book, 'The Survivor's Walk,' is available at www.amazon.com, Barnes & Noble and on her website, www.jackieryanwitherspoon.com.

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