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Facing cancer head on

Jowell Griggs: ‘There’s no time for me to wallow’

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Facing cancer head on

Jowell Griggs, foreground, was recently diagnosed with cancer. She has the close support of her mother Doris Ludwigsen.

HIME ROMERO/The Bulletin


POSTED April 5, 2009 6:17 a.m.

Jowell Griggs laughs as she recalls her first encounter with her husband-to-be Leo.

She was an 18-year-old keeping the scorebook for her uncle Robert Agdoma’s basketball tournament.

“I was making stars by the names of the guys I thought were cute,” laughed the 1985 East Union High graduate and third generation Manteca area resident. “Leo wasn’t one of them.”

Twenty-two years of marriage later it is clear that Leo is the love of Jowell’s life and that he ultimately did pass the “cute” test.

Things, as Jowell will tell you, aren’t always what they seem. Absentmindedly scratching her future husband off a list of people she’d like to date didn’t stop love from triumphing. Jowell believes in the strength of the human spirit

It is the same approach she is taking to cancer.

Jowell, 42, had gone to the doctor in January. She had recently been laid off from a marketing job at Big League Dreams and figured it was an ideal time to take care of what she thought was a reoccurring kidney stone problem from a pain in her side. Her doctor figured before they scheduled her for surgery they should do another scan.

It was then that she found out she had lung cancer.

Jowell said she was in shock but she didn’t show it. She immediately wanted to know what she had to do next and how soon they could get treatment started.

She started treatment the next day. That is extremely rare as most people when they are told they have cancer take several days to gather their thoughts. She also insisted on a stepped up treatment schedule.

The doctor told her that she was surprised that she was so calm and wasn’t lashing out or breaking down.

“You know me, it pays to stay focused,” Jowell said. “I’m not a woe-is-me type of person. Inside I’m thinking to myself this sucks but I had to stay focused.”

Jowell now views losing her job as a blessing. She wouldn’t have gone to the doctors when she did because surgery would have meant taking time off work.

“The good news was I didn’t have kidney stones,” she said with a laugh. “The bad news is I had cancer.”

She won’t accept ‘can’t do’ as an answer

Jowell made an assessment of her situation. She was young. She was healthy except for the cancer. She was stubborn and positive. Her spine was intact and the cancer hadn’t metabolized in her bones.

She also said that when she’s dealt with adversity before she has never taken “no” or someone telling her it was impossible to do something.

It is an attitude that has helped her serve other organizations well from fundraising for the Boys & Girls Club to Give Every Child a Chance to the Manteca High Boosters, Sierra High Boosters, Sierra High Sober Graduation Committee, support group for the Sierra High boys basketball team, and the Fourth of July Committee to name a few.

She was told the cancer also has spread to her liver. Then last week doctors informed her they have now have detected three lesions on her brain.

It jarred her but again she didn’t lose focus.

“Do what you need to do,” she recalled telling doctors last week.

Jowell said she had a lot to live for – her kids, her husband, and her family – for starters.

“There is no time for me to do the wallowing thing,” Jowell said. “I’m going to do whatever is needed to take a shot at (beating the cancer.)

Jowell said it seems “crazy” given the fact she showed no signs and the fact she has never smoked. She is now well aware that at least 5 percent of lung cancer victims never smoked. She would like to see some type of early detection test to give people a fighting chance.

“Mine is the type of cancer that if you catch it soon enough you have a good chance of beating it,” she said.

Jo Jo’s circus gearing up for Relay for Life

That is why she has taken on the task of bringing family and friends together for a team in the Manteca 24-Hour Relay for Life taking place Saturday, May 16, and Sunday, May 17, at Sierra High. Even though organized late, the team Jo Jo’s Circus is already vying for top fundraising honors. The team is being co-captained by her 16-year-old daughter Alexis who is a sophomore at Sierra High and her longtime friend Stacey Ferguson.

This won’t be Jowell’s first Relay for Life. She’s been involved as volunteer organizing teams for other organizations including Give Every Child a Chance and the Manteca Bulletin.

One of the hardest things about dealing with cancer is how many people react.

“They (friends and acquaintances) just don’t know what to say,” Jowell noted.

It has a major impact on the person who is battling cancer as well as their families. She noted her son Aaron, 11, kept the fact she had cancer quiet and didn’t mention it to anybody at school including classmates. Then one day he mentioned to his teacher that his mother had cancer.

It was shared with the class.

“A little girl wrote Aaron a note saying that her mother had cancer too,” Jowell said.

Jowell is thrilled that her children have stepped up on their own to help others.

This past Christmas her oldest son Andrew, 22, who is studying to become a chef and ultimately wants to own his own restaurant, contacted Give Every Child a Chance. Andrew along with his girlfriend Virginia wanted to prepare a Christmas dinner for a needy kid’s family.

They ended up doing just that for a family of six. The dinner was complete with prime rib. His siblings got classmates to buy presents as well for the family.

“I’m glad that I’ve been able to in part to my kids the importance of helping others,” Jowell said.

Jowell’s husband Leo is the assistant coach for the Timberwolves boy’s basketball team. Son Andrew was a Sierra High student body president and founder of the infamous Wolf Pack student cheer section.

Acquaintances in the community are preparing a fundraiser for Jowell. While insurance should pick up treatment costs, there is a concern that since she is not working and Leo may have to take time off from his job at time to be with her that it could strain family financials. Jowell’s mother Doris Ludwigsen is also driving her daily to treatments. Friends were concerned ultimately that Jowell and he family will have a difficult time keeping up with all expenses.

And if all of the money raised is not needed to help Jowell, she wants to have what is left over go to help others fighting cancer or to establish a college account for her two younger children.

“You do what you have to do,” Griggs said. “I live for my kids and family. There is no time for me to wallow … I have a shot at beating this and I will do what it takes.”

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