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Cancer survivor aims to help others
Bull documented experiences as way to cope with illness
Jackie Bull is seen with a closeness to her husband, Jason, and two sons, Jason, 24, and Joseph, 18, who gave all their support through her breast cancer, mastectomy and recovery. - photo by GLENN KAHL

Jackie Bull has kept a journal on the breast cancer chapter of her life that she hopes she can share with other women to enlighten them on how she survived the diagnosis, the surgery and the reconstruction of her left breast.

She is looking forward to counseling other women with breast cancer to help them get through it – a form of giving back – telling how she endured three surgeries physically and emotionally.

The 53-year-old Manteca administrative assistant said she sees how most women hesitate in talking about their experiences.   She too often hears them say, “I was diagnosed on this day, I had surgery on this day and I am fine now.”

“In this last year, since I was diagnosed, my perception of other people is that the word cancer scares the daylights out of them.  When they are diagnosed, they simplify what they went through to others – that’s my biggest concern because that’s not how it works,” she insisted.

She stressed that women have so many things they have to do to get beyond in their medical journey that involves much anxiety and all too often a test of their religious faith.

“It’s important for them to know it is not simple and sometimes not scary the way everything is handled today (with successes in research),” she added.  “Nowadays they have other medications to help you get through it.”

Bull, who was a long-time employee of Raymus Development and Sales and the San Joaquin County Office of Education serving in Special Education for the last three years, had her mammogram test last December.  She went back to the hospital a month later for a biopsy in January of this year.

Her first thoughts after the diagnosis were of her family, she said.  “Will they make it without me – and for my kids – I still had to get one through college.  Toward myself it was mainly:  What am I going to have to go through?”

She had been called back to the hospital over the last three years to have a follow up sonogram because something of a mass had been detected beginning in 2008.

Jackie has two sons.  The oldest, Jason, is going on 24 and the youngest, Joseph, is 18 and in his freshman year at DeVries College.  Jason is now in an internship with their pastor at the Lathrop Christian Center.

Her husband, Jason, of some 25 years, along with the boys, took the news of her cancer quite differently. 

She said her husband was very worried with memories of his own mother suffering with cancer for over nine years before she died,  remembering he just walked outside and sat in his car and released his emotions with tears – never far from her side through the months to come.

Jackie’s older son is very strong in his faith, and immediately sat down and prayed, she said, while her younger son said, “Mom, if you are ok, I am ok.”

She was quick to say she couldn’t be more proud of having such a very strong family.

Jackie admitted to having an emotional fallout after the doctor first told her she had cancer. 

“Since then, to be honest with you, I just had peace when a verse from the Bible came to me, Psalms 46-10.  It just said, ‘Be Still, I am with you.’”

As soon as that came down, I knew He was going to take care of me.  It’s really what calmed me down and got me through this.  I have a great family. I have a great church. I have a great God,” she mused.

Jackie had first gone into the hospital and had a biopsy on the left side and then a second on the right breast to make sure it was clear, she said.  The actual surgery was on February 23 at Doctors Hospital and the surgeon was Dr. Jerry Weiner, of Manteca.

She further explained that plastic surgeon Dr. Thomas McNamara, of Tracy, did the reconstructive surgery at the same time, explaining that an expander was placed underneath the breast muscle between the breast bone and the muscle.

For the next six weeks, after the mastectomy, the tissue was expanded to stretch the muscle to be able to hold an implant.  Following the six weeks expansion, a gel was inserted.  A smaller implant was later added to the right side to balance the two, she noted.  But that side did not have the benefit of a preliminary expansion of the tissue, making it more difficult to endure, she said.

“I was up and around in a few days with the first surgery, but with the second, I was down for an entire week and a half.  The only thing the doctor said was that I needed to go in for an MRI after three years just to make sure everything is fine.

“Then, again, after every two years I need to be seen to make sure there are no leaks, because they’re not detectable just by touch.  They don’t take all the breast tissue in a mastectomy and that needs to be checked in time as well,” she noted.

The Manteca woman said both her mom and dad were there for her from her first biopsy, saying they are both very strong people but that they were obviously worried.  She noted that the initial surgery took about an hour and a half – two and a half hours total with the reconstruction.

Jackie said she was relieved to find out that chemotherapy treatment was not in the mix after she took a new Oncotyte DX test that indicated chemo wouldn’t help destroy cancer cells leaving her needing only radiation.

The Oncotyte DX test is ordered by an oncologist hoping for a reading under 34 that can reach as high as 100.  She said her score was only 15 that ruled out the need for chemotherapy.

“I actually visited Dr. Weiner a month ago to recap everything.  He said he was pretty much assured I was 93 percent cancer free,” she concluded.

Jackie recalled that before becoming a Christian 11 years ago she was a different individual than what she is today.  She was “very cranky and not very supportive” of others.

“In the last few years, I haven’t thought of myself as much, like I used to.  It was always Jackie this, Jackie that, and why can’t I do that?”

She said that today it’s all about wanting to help others, to do something for other people to the point she has launched a Christian ministry in her church where she turns out prayer shawls for those emotionally distraught.

“I have prayer shawls in the church and I have them with me.  If I find someone who needs comfort – I give them away,” she said.  “I have found there is more value in helping others than thinking about myself.”

She said when she got to the point where she was able to go back to work, she was overcome with the feeling that she had to write down her experiences.  She felt people needed to know it’s not just a one, two, or three step procedure – it’s a long process to get through breast cancer diagnosis, surgery and recovery.

“It was in my heart to write it all down on paper.  I felt that I really argued with myself, because I didn’t want to write it.  I kept telling myself, NO, but still realizing I had to write it,” she said. 

She said she got peace in putting pen to paper with her story that she says will probably never be published, but rather something she can share with other women to help them to understand and to have faith in a positive outcome.