By JULIA MILLER
At 37, Jana Neely stepped into her OB-GYN’s office for her annual wellness check up. “During the routine breast exam, my doctor felt a small lump,” she recalled. “It would roll back and forth, so he said not to worry. We’ll just keep an eye on it.”
At that time, the lump was only about the size BB. Every month during her self-breast exam, she would check to see if anything had changed. Just before her check-up in 1998, she noticed it had grown to pea size, but it still rolled, a characteristic not normally associated with cancer. She chose to wait until her appointment to bring it to her doctor’s attention. He inspected the lump, and although he thought it most likely was nothing, he suggested a biopsy.
The follow-up call proved the precaution had been warranted.
“He said it was carcinoma,” she said. “It’s not malignant yet, but it’s working through the stages.”
That was in July of 1998. By the end of the month, she was sitting down with a general surgeon to discuss her options for removal. Although the cancer was only in one breast, she ultimately decided to have a double mastectomy.
“I know they may not normally recommend it,” she recalled the doctor saying, “but if you were my daughter, I’d say get both [breasts] removed.”
Meanwhile at home, her sons were 9 and 11, and questions regarding their future echoed in her head.
“Who is going to raise my children? What if I don’t live to see them graduate high school?”
She leaned on her husband, who she described as her biggest cheerleader, and her church family.
“In my particular case, I would not have been able to make it through without my church family and without my own family,” she said.
The diagnosis also made her examine her faith. Although she believed in God and His miracles, she knew He doesn’t always choose to heal people.
“Whether I made it or He called me home, I had to have peace with it,” she said. “I’m going to fight. I’m going to do everything I can, but if I don’t make it, that’s OK.”
After her surgery, Neely faced another decision. She could either undergo chemo for six months or spend five years on tamoxifen. She opted for the five years of pills and, since then, has not had a recurrence.
But that was not the end of her journey.
“I felt like God was leading me,” she said, explaining how her cancer diagnosis prompted her to begin considering a career in nursing.
In 1998, she worked as an assistant at Simpson County schools, and she decided she didn’t want to disrupt her now precious time with her children. She decided to wait on her new calling, and when her youngest son was a senior in high school, she began her prerequisites for nursing school. Beginning from her internship in 2008 through now, she has worked in oncology her entire nursing career, first in bone marrow transplant and now in the gynecological cancer unit at UMMC.
“I’ve never once regretted choosing to work with my oncology patients,” she said. “I’m so glad I feel like I am able to give back in a small part like my providers did for me.”
Although she works with people who are diagnosed with different cancers, and a lot of them are dealing with a more bleak prognosis, she can relate to them and reach them on a different level because of her history.
“A lot of the patients, we are treating from diagnosis to death,” she said. “I feel like I can make a difference in their lives in the meantime. More than anything, it’s the spiritual and emotional side that I’ve been able to help with.”
Neely said many of her patients do not have the family support, and she tries to step into the void. She tries to share the lessons she’s learned with her patients.
“Don’t worry about the small things,” she said. “I used to be the person who would stress over every little thing. I don’t do that anymore.”
Most importantly, she urges people not to worry about cancer taking you. “When it’s your time to go, you’re gonna go,” she said.
Neely carries these lessons with her, both in her personal life and her professional life, and she strives to cherish and enjoy every day.
“I always say cancer was the best thing that ever happened to me,” she said.
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