Glenwood Springs woman smiles through cancer

John GardnerPost Independent StaffGlenwood Springs, CO Colorado
Kelley Cox Post Independent

Editor’s note: Glenwood Springs resident Jessica McMillan works for the Post Independent as business office assistant. She graciously allowed us to tell her story about her devastating cancer diagnosis and her subsequent fight against the disease.GLENWOOD SPRINGS – Hope is a cancer for Jessica McMillan. It spreads like wildfire and has the ability to change attitudes in an instant. It’s a positive feeling one has toward a certain expectation or desired outcome.When cancer spread through McMillan’s liver and into her lungs and became her life, her hope was simple: for her life to continue for as long as possible. It now accompanies her like a lucky rabbit’s foot tucked in the warmth of her coat pocket.It’s not a rare occasion to see her smile. Even when she’s grown tired from the daily grind of her job at the Post Independent, where she continues to work five days a week.She knows that hope alone will not change the situation; she has no illusions. But she sees no point in being negative, even through the emotional waves of fear and sadness. She keeps smiling.”You have to remain positive,” she said. “If you think negatively, your body will pick up on that. I have to think about being healthy.”Remaining positive is her battle plan.

There wasn’t much hope provided with McMillan’s diagnosis. Hearing that she had stage-four cancer of the liver was pretty devastating – there is no stage five. And with it having already spread to her lungs, chemotherapy is the only treatment.”That’s pretty much it,” McMillan said. Her smile disappeared briefly. “If chemo doesn’t work then it’s time to check out.”Doctors advised her to go home and get her affairs in order.”It wasn’t a good thing,” she said just before her second chemotherapy treatment at the Shaw Regional Cancer Treatment Center in Edwards, a little more than two months since her diagnosis.”You always want to give people hope,” she said. “But it just didn’t seem like there was any at the time.”She wasn’t ready to give up so easily. Getting a second opinion took priority over her final will and testament. She already had one drafted years ago anyway.”It’s really devastating at first,” McMillan said. “It’s like someone took a jackhammer to your head. It’s just like losing someone close to you, but this time it’s you – it’s you.”For her husband, Bruce, it was like reliving a nightmare. He was diagnosed with testicular cancer at the age of 25. The fear of being diagnosed with a potentially terminal illness is all too familiar to him.”Getting a new pair of skis at the ski swap suddenly isn’t so important,” he said.His stare and expression were solid as dried cement.Before cancer became an everyday thought, the McMillans booked a trip to Tahiti. Bruce convinced Jessica that it would be a good, healthy way for them to deal with the initial impact of the diagnosis. So they packed up and made their way to the Pacific Islands, where they could refocus their efforts. Three hours before they left, Jessica and Bruce made a detour to the Shaw Center in Edwards.”Getting a second opinion was really the right thing to do,” she said.After the visit, the couple left for Tahiti and relaxed for eight days. It was stormy and rain-drenched paradise for most of the vacation. Regardless, Jessica weathered the storm. Her horizon was as bright as the morning sun.

Jessica often smiled during her second chemo treatment. Her doctor, Alex Urquhart, found the cancer hadn’t increased much from the initial tests. It was an indication that chemo may have slowed the tumor’s growth, unlike Jessica’s hope.That news caused another smile.So much has changed, but yet so much has remained the same. Activities like shopping haven’t changed, just Jessica’s purchases have. She spent a cold November afternoon with one of her sisters shopping for hats after her first chemo treatment began thinning her hair.Another unpleasant aspect of the treatment.”The first day after the treatment isn’t too bad, but the next day I can hardly manage,” Jessica said. “Some days I get so sick I can’t do anything.”She knew that she was going to lose her hair, but it was still a surprise when it happened.”The first look at yourself in the mirror, you go, ‘Oh my God,'” Jessica said. “For a man it’s probably not that bad, but for a woman it’s really hard.”She bought two hats: One brown, one red. Her only complaint was that her glasses didn’t fit anymore.”I don’t have any hair to keep them on,” she said. A laugh followed, as if to say to her illness, if this is all ya got, I can take it.A couple of weeks later she received a wig made from artificial hair. It was a darker shade of brown than her natural color. But she doesn’t mind. It’s hair nonetheless.Her days begin and end with the disease. It’s the first and last thought in her mind each living day and yet she smiles relentlessly.It’s hope. For her, that’s what it’s all about.”You create your own life,” Jessica said. “Some days are harder than others, but you just have to put out positive energy, and that’s what you will get back.”Positive energy creates a smile for Jessica, and vice versa.

For Jessica, pleasure is a cup of Earl Grey.Fragile, she sat in an earth-tone chair in an exam room at Shaw. Besides the stylish, oversized hat and the absence of the locks of brown hair that used to rest upon her shoulders, she didn’t look sick. But they are constant reminders that she is.Her tense smiles are hope in the most refined sense of the word.Cancer may alter the way a person lives life, but it doesn’t have to end it.Today, a lot of people, like Bruce, survive cancer. Others continue to live with it for a significant amount of time. But the disease consumes a life in more ways than one.Upon Jessica’s return from Tahiti, her life became about cancer. Everything she enjoyed in the past, from piloting her airplane, to eating a juicy steak, was placed on the shelf for the time being. She immersed herself in the disease, learning everything she could about it. Not all by her choice. She said that everyone she knew was giving her so much information on the disease that it was overwhelming. But it did give her more hope.”When you are diagnosed with a terminal illness, it’s your life,” she said. “It’s not just something that you deal with, it’s literally your life.”The phrase “fighting for your life” takes on a whole new meaning.

And then comes the chemotherapy.”It’s my life juice,” Jessica said as a nurse hooked her up to an intravenous drip. “This is the stuff that’s keeping me alive.”She doesn’t eat much. She lost 30 pounds in a three-week period. Not only did the chemo drugs change her tastes, she had her gallbladder removed at the same time she was diagnosed with cancer. That contributes to her finicky eating. The mention of steak would make her salivate; now it makes her stomach turn.She fought bouts of constipation and nausea. Wearing a coat is routine, she is constantly cold and heartburn grew to be such a problem that she had to sleep sitting up for a couple of weeks. On top of that, her energy level is constantly depleted.”I really have to watch what I do,” she confessed. “Some days are harder than others.”A trip up a single flight of stairs in her house can zap her energy for the remainder of a day.Everything’s become so tedious that even the amount of milk in her morning cup of Earl Grey tea can upset her stomach.That single cup of warm tea in the morning has become a huge source of pleasure, like the feeling of flying her plane. Between work, doctor’s appointments, chemo and losing her hair, pleasures are few and far between.But she takes what she gets and she smiles.”Eventually you have to get through the fog,” she said. “You realize that you are still alive, you’re still breathing and your body is still doing most of the things it’s supposed to and you get on with living.”Contact John Gardner: 384-9114jgardner@postindependent.comPost Independent, Glenwood Springs, Colorado CO

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