Childhood cancer can change a lot of things, but for Jackie Custer of Canton, the changes she speaks of aren’t about hair loss or rashes, they’re about family and strength.
“I remember that (being diagnosed) day like it was yesterday,” said Jackie. “My parents were pulled out of the room … when they returned my dad got down by my bedside and told me I had cancer…Being a teenager was already hard enough and finding out you have cancer made it 10 times harder.”
At 16 years of age, Jackie was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL), a childhood cancer of the bone marrow and blood. She found support through family, friends and teammates, but what she didn’t anticipate was the strength she’d find in a second family – her caregivers at Akron Children’s Hospital.
“At first it’s kind of overwhelming with all the different doctors and nurses coming through your door,” said Jackie. “After a while, though, I saw the same faces and it made me feel like I was home.”
Each day Jackie had visitors – from Akron Children’s, from home and from her high school basketball team.
“The nurses and doctors became my family…I loved and respected them as much as my own family,” she said. “My friends from school would visit and sit right along side me through my chemo treatments… It (cancer) wasn’t just my battle, it was my friends and family’s battle as well.”
Early into Jackie’s treatment she suffered a major setback. Her body had an allergic reaction to one of her chemotherapy drugs, causing her to suffer a stroke. Now, Jackie was not only battling cancer, but also trying to recover from a stroke, which required hours of physical and occupational therapy.
“As a nurse practitioner, I talk with patients, give them updates, answer questions, educate and explain treatments to them,” said Ann Stratton, MSN, PNP, CPHON, Akron Children’s Hospital. “When I met with Jackie after her stroke she couldn’t speak, but I told her to keep her head up and she’d be quoting Mary Poppins before long.”
Ann didn’t realize that statement would resonate with Jackie.
“Several days later when I stopped in to ask Jackie how she was doing, she slowly got out one word – supercalifragilisticexpialidocious,” Ann said. “Kudos to her wit and determination to come back with a line like that… Jackie made recovery quicker than we thought she would, which is something she continued to do throughout her treatment.”
The bond Jackie formed with Ann would continue, as well.
“I would always call the nurses station and ask for Ann…I could honestly talk to her for hours,” said Jackie. “Ann always knew how to make me feel so much better after suffering through the pain. She never looked at me as just another patient. She actually took the time to get to know me and found ways to help me.”
With each treatment, Jackie’s second family grew – nurses, therapists, volunteers and specialists.
“All of my nurses were especially helpful answering my questions and making everything easier for me,” Jackie said. “Dr. Hord treated me since day one…I don’t look at him as just a doctor; he’s like a father figure as well.”
Jackie’s treatment lasted for 2-and-a-half years, but the friendships she made at Children’s will last a lifetime.
“Without Ann I don’t think I would have gotten through my treatments,” said Jackie. “Before I thought of her as a nurse, now I think of her as a friend and mentor. I appreciate everything she has done for me.”
For Ann, Jackie serves as a perfect example of why she loves being a nurse practitioner.
“Jackie had setbacks throughout her treatments but she’d set goals for herself and achieve them every time… She’s an amazing young woman,” Ann said. “We see families at one of the scariest points in their life and our team works hard to get them through it. Jackie has done it with grace, beauty and dignity.”
Today, Jackie is done with chemotherapy treatments, but she’s not done growing her second family. Now she comes to Children’s as a ‘big sister’ volunteer and talks with cancer patients.
“I enjoy coming back to help,” said Jackie. “I can talk to these kids from a perspective that only someone who’s experienced it can.”
September is Childhood Cancer Awareness Month, which puts a spotlight on the types of cancer that largely affect children. In the U.S., 15,780 children under the age of 21 are diagnosed with cancer every year.
Jackie was one of those statistics, but now she’s ready for the next chapter of her life as a nursing major at the University of Mount Union.
“I’d like to thank all the people I met while I was being treated at Akron Children’s Hospital,” Jackie said. “Akron Children’s was like a second home to me and the nurses, doctors and volunteers were like my second family.”