by Kaetlin Zink
HAC member Jan White has been through hell and back, but you’d never guess based off the positivity and liveliness she exudes.
In February 2016, she started having pain in her back, which her doctor thought was cracked ribs due to coughing from a bad case of the flu. But after weeks of escalating pain, several trips to the doctor, and still no improvement, an MRI was ordered to look for herniated disks.
Jan and her husband were stunned to learn she had multiple tumors. Further testing showed the tumors to be cancer that was so advanced, Jan was admitted to the hospital and on chemotherapy within 24 hours of receiving her cancer diagnosis: she had aggressive, Stage 4 Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma.
Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, (NHL), is a type of blood cancer that forms in the lymphatic system from cells called lymphocytes. Lymphocytes are a type of white blood cell that assists the body in fighting off infections and diseases.
The cancer had invaded her spine, making treatment and recovery even more difficult. It left her unable to walk, forcing her to use a walker and need help with the most basic day-to-day tasks.
Jan came to Elite PT to regain the mobility and strength that she had lost due to cord compression from the spinal tumor and the side effects of chemotherapy. She has been continually working with their team since June of 2016. With their expertise, along with strong chemotherapy, radiation, and an unflagging support system, Jan has made an amazing recovery. Not only can she walk on her own, but she can even do Zumba®.
From the very beginning of her cancer journey, what she now calls “the adventure,” Jan was determined to beat cancer and return to life as she knew it: running a successful small business, hiking with her family, teaching kickboxing, and studying martial arts (she’s a third-degree black belt, by the way!). The complexity of her situation, however, made her progression back to health a slow one.
Jan underwent five and a half months of intense treatment. Every three weeks, she had 96 continuous hours of chemotherapy plus multiple injections to her head for the cancer in her spine. That regimen was followed by a high dose of chemotherapy. She had to be admitted to the hospital for five days following this treatment to be closely monitored for potentially lethal side effects. She then underwent almost a month of radiation.
Fortunately, this rigorous process sent Jan into remission, where she desperately hopes to stay.
Therapy and Regaining Mobility
Five and a half months of cancer treatment and tumor damage left Jan’s legs and body very weak. In the beginning, therapists had to use a gait belt around her waist, which acts as a necessary support and safety measure when learning to balance and walk again. They would also have her do exercises like heel-to-toe walking, standing, and balancing on one foot, and tapping a cone while trying to maintain balance and coordination.
Determined to push onward, Jan would even go to physical therapy while on chemo with a pump attached to her chest port. Sometimes, though, Jan’s resilience wasn’t enough. On days when her white blood cells, responsible for protecting against illness and infection, were nonexistent, or when her red blood cells, responsible for carrying oxygen, were too low, she would have no choice but to skip therapy until her counts rebounded.
Jan’s husband was also there for her every step of the way. At first, he would drop her off at the front of the building and escort her into Elite, until he eventually felt comfortable dropping her off at the front and watching as she walked into the club. After seven long months, Jan drove to the club and walked in on her own for the first time. It was a huge milestone.
After more than 16 months of physical therapy, she became a HAC member in November 2017 and began light exercise classes to supplement her therapy. She started off taking Tai Chi — a gentle form of exercise involving stretching and slow movements in conjunction with deep breathing. She also took stretching classes with Group Fitness Director, Susan Storm.
In a few months, Jan moved on to Mind Body Balance, Barre, and then Zumba®, starting with Zumba® Gold. In the beginning, she was frustrated that her brain could easily follow the movements and transitions, but her legs and feet simply couldn’t act quickly enough to keep up with the most basic steps or combinations.
Taking Zumba® while still continuing therapy at Elite has now allowed her to keep up with most of the class. If she is unable to move her legs and feet quickly enough, she simply modifies the move and continues.
While undergoing this battle, what surprised Jan was how supportive and caring everyone was who surrounded her. “Having a good support system along the way has definitely made it easier for me to keep a positive mindset,” she said. “It made me want to keep going. I even had two friends who drove two hours each way when I had to get bloodwork taken and my husband had to take care of the business.”
She was especially shocked at how many people at the club would check in on her and take notice of her progress. “When I graduated from first doing no weights in my exercise classes to then increasingly adding more and more, people would recognize the changes.”
She specifically recalled the very first time she drove to the HAC on her own. Jan was totally caught off-guard when Nancy Gilmore, Membership Director, noticed right away and congratulated her in delight with a broad smile and a huge hug.
Even though Jan was the one who was ill, she believes it is caregivers who have the even tougher road. “While I was sick, not only did my husband chauffeur me around to countless appointments whenever needed,” she recalled, “he somehow managed to take care of me, our son, and our home, while simultaneously keeping our business — Meetings by Design — growing and thriving. All this without a single word of complaint, ever.”
While Jan wouldn’t wish this journey on anyone, she concedes that having gone through the experience opened her eyes to the gift of gratitude and awareness. “It made me grow more appreciative of the people around me and has heightened my awareness of specific moments. Even the most mundane moments, which many of us take for granted, can be very special.”
Jan also explained that her journey has awoken something inside her: a fiery passion for advocacy that can’t be extinguished. In May of 2017, she heard a statement by a U.S. Congressman basically stating that those with pre-existing conditions have brought it on themselves.
This statement motivated her to become a legislative patient advocate for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society and the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network. “Someone has to stand up and say something — it might as well be me,” she said.
Shortly after registering as an advocate, she received a call from the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society inviting her to share her story at a patient roundtable with Senator Tom Carper. After the roundtable, she was shocked to receive a call from D.C. saying that she had left an impression on the Senator — so much that Senator Carper wanted to present her story on the U.S. Senate Floor, which is exactly what he did a few days later.
Jan continues to be an active advocate who has visited with legislators on Capitol Hill multiple times to speak up for patients and their families.
Having fought and conquered the biggest battle imaginable, she is more determined than ever to make the best of her time by making a real difference in the world.