Writer Jane Howard wrote “Call it a clan, call it a network, call it a tribe, call it a family. Whatever you call it, whoever you are, you need one."
Jan White is finding that to be so.
For starters, she expects to be bald-headed when she turns 60.
The principal of Stephen F. Austin Elementary had her first chemotherapy Friday.
“I told my oncologist, ‘I’m scared,’ and she said, ‘that’s good – then all this intrepidation might turn out not as bad as you thought.’
“Believe it or not, I’m much better than I anticipated,” she said. “It didn’t knock me flat on my back like I thought it might.”
One of her treatments has apparently earned the nickname “Red Devil” for its unpleasant associations. That includes the loss of her beautiful silver hair.
“I’ll lose my hair before my birthday – February 9,” she said.
She ran into a friend while the family was out to dinner, who joked, “Well, at least you won’t look like Bud! (her bald husband)” and White thought, “I soon will.”
Jan White’s cancer had its insidious roots in another cure.
“I had a hysterectomy when I was 45. I never dreamed estrogen would cause cancer to grow, but apparently my adrenal glands started to produce extra estrogen, and that caused the breast cancer to grow,” she said.
White’s grateful for a bit of serendipitous timing – if finding out you have cancer could be considered serendipitous.
“I was lucky – it was allergy season, I went to the doctor,” she recalled.
It was Austin’s annual chili supper season, and she knew that if she didn’t get her appointment taken care of before the chili supper, she’d be miserable.
The doctor happened to prescribe a mammogram.
After seeing the ominous results, an ultrasound was ordered.
The picture was clear – and scary.
“On a scale of 0 to 5, (the cancer) looked like a 4,” White was told.
Dr. John Sullivan performed a lumpectomy – and the devastating diagnosis came back: invasive ductal carcinoma .
A Dallas surgical oncologist found more precancerous spots.
Fortunately, the lymph node were clear.
A bilateral mastectomy was ordered. During the surgery to remove both breasts, most cancer cells were discovered, confirming the doctor’s strong hunch: they had made the right choice.
“I try not to influence my patients, but if you were my wife, we would have done the surgery,” her doctor told her.
He performed a delicate procedure known as a double Latissimus flap, which borrowed muscles from her back and attached them to the breast bone. Expanders were added to help the new tissue form prior to implants.
Her daughters Brooke, from Denver, and Ashley, who teaches in Ennis, have been close. Together with husband Bud, they went through her chemo class with her.
They helped her pick out a red wig for when she tires of the cute headpieces they bought her, bringing it up to the oncology office, where husband Bud, ever the clown, couldn’t resist having a little fun.
His turns with the auburn wig got all the oncology patients laughing – no small feat.
That same White family humor is keeping Jan’s eyes bright, her spirit determined.
“You’ve got to have a good time with it – you just can’t let it get to you,” she said.
At low ebb after the mastectomy, Jan White wasn’t sure she’d make it to the staff Christmas party.
She was glad she did.
The staff greeted her and fellow cancer patient and staffer Ann Mathes with a Pink Christmas. That day, they were all cancer survivors – or that’s what it looked like, with the plethora of pink feather boas and poinsettias trimmed out in pink ribbon.
“It was a total surprise – it was just great, the way they had it all arranged,” White recalled.
Jan White is not one to pout or ask “Why me?” Still, she recalls one very low moment – when she had to tell her youngest daughter, up in Denver, that her mama had cancer.
“It was hard – I get emotional,” she said, her voice quavering and then breaking as the tears flowed in recollection. “It was hard telling her over the phone.”
The Stephen F. Austin faculty took a collection for Brooke, her husband and baby to fly down to be with Jan, and Southwest Airlines helped with ticket deals.
There has been one other real difficult moment so far.
“I had a meltdown the day after surgery, in the hospital. It wasn’t really for me, it was more about how it was affecting the faculty, how it was affecting the students, how it was affecting my family. How it’s affecting those that I affect,” White said. “That’s been the hardest, not being able to be there for them.”
An Ennis native, Jan Walker went “every day of my life through Ennis public school doors,” she said.
She was a drum majorette in the Ennis High School Marching Band for then-director Ivan Goodwin.
She cites him as her greatest influence in deciding on an education career.
“I could see what he was doing for the kids of this community, and I wanted to do the same thing. I wanted to be able to make a difference in the lives of a diverse group of students as he had done,” White said.
She spent some time teaching in Houston and California before husband Bud brought her home to Ennis, and she’s in her 30th year of working in the Texas public school system, her 29th in Ennis.
“I’ve never regretted it. Ennis has been good to us,” she said.
After four treatments every two weeks, White will go once a week for treatments for 12 weeks, and then continue for a year with Herceptin.
“After a year, I should be cut loose – I should be cancer-free with no radiation,” she said.
Her doctor said that with treatment, she can expect to experience hot flashes again after a decade’s rest from them.
“Well, thank you – just what I need is more hot flashes,” she said, that humor flaring up again.
She is working on getting back to a normal work life, but with her immune system wiped out along with the cancer, she must be wary for the kind of germs adorable little kids cart around big time in flu season.
“If I hear they need a custodian for clean-up, I’m to pick my purse up and say, ‘I will see you all tomorrow,’” she said. “I could end up in the hospital if I don’t use good common sense.”
At Stephen F. Austin, the staff and volunteers have rallied around their fearless leader and fellow survivor Ann Mathes.
Robin Corbett is helping organize the school’s Relay for Life team. Already, the Stephen F. Austin Elementary Relay for Life team has 23 members.
Donations are already coming in – like the ones made by Carol and Robert Brazier to Relay to Life, and William and Rita LeNoir to the MD Anderson Breast Cancer Institute in Houston.
Those gestures, big and small, continue to touch Jan White as she heals.
“I’ve had so many people call and send cards and offer to help – you can’t imagine the outpouring of love this community has given. There are a lot of good people in this community,” she said.
E-mail J.Louise at email@example.com.