Jill Yeager doesn’t look like she’s fighting for her life. She has a dazzling smile, appears to know everyone in the room and doesn’t shy away from talking about much of anything.
But Yeager has been fighting a battle since September 2014. The 42-year-old Madisonville resident has metastatic breast cancer that has spread throughout her body.
Less than two years ago, Yeager was experiencing “severe, excruciating” back pain and doctors were unable to determine the cause. Just a couple of days into a new teaching job in Humble, Yeager got a call in her classroom, surrounded by elementary-age students. It was her doctor, and he used the dreaded C word – Stage IV in fact. That day, she removed her daughter and son – now 12 and 10 years old – from their classrooms and drove home, using cryptic language on the phone with her mother until she could get the kids home. She told them that evening.
“I’m a Christian. I’m going to Heaven,” Yeager said last week. “But I’ve had to face the reality that my kids may not have a mom. That’s what I can’t handle. The first thing you want when you get hurt is your mom.”
The kids have handled it well, although they may have some “silent anxiety.” Yeager’s mother, who lives in Bryan, has helped, along with her sister, take her to doctor’s appointments and has provided plenty of moral support.
Yeager said she hopes to share her story with anyone who will listen – and that they share it with others. She got to tell an audience about it while giving her testimony at Madisonville Christian Fellowship, where she attends church. A friend approached her after the service and put her in touch with the American Cancer Society, which is hosting its local Relay for Life next month.
A Relay for Life of Madison County Survivor/Caregiver Dinner – open to the public – is set for 6 p.m. Friday, April 8, at the Truman Kimbro Center. The local Relay for Life – the American Cancer Society’s signature fundraising event – is set for 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. Saturday, April 30, at Lake Madison, 1215 East Collard, Madisonville.
Erin Robinson, community manager for Relay for Life, said Yeager is a “perfect example” of how funds raised through Relay directly benefit the local community.
“American Cancer Society-funded research led to the development of the breast cancer drug tamoxifen, which is playing a huge part in keeping Jill alive each and every day,” Robinson said. “And she’s one of many in Madison County benefiting from this life-saving drug. She’s also recently begun the process of becoming a Reach to Recovery volunteer, which will allow her the opportunity to provide support and resources to those facing breast cancer right here in Madison County or around the world.”
Yeager is now in full menopause, an option she chose because “estrogen feeds my cancer.” She is scanned every three months to determine whether the cancer has outsmarted her current cocktail of medicine.
“I live my life in three-month increments,” she said.
The tamoxifen, she said, has kept her alive for almost a year and a half – and has caused her to become a huge proponent of American Cancer Society. The average life span for someone with metastatic breast cancer is 18 to 33 months.
“The public is extremely misinformed,” she said, noting that people think that if they buy “pink stuff,” the money goes to cancer research, when in fact it goes to the Susan G. Komen Foundation, which donates just 7 percent to cancer research. The American Cancer Society, on the other hand, donates 74 cents of every dollar to research.
“Our saying is ‘research not ribbons,’” she said. “Education is the biggest thing.”
Yeager still has excruciating bone pain and takes almost 30 pills a day. She lost her hair during chemotherapy but was able to retire on disability and keep her insurance through the teacher retirement system.
“If I’m hurting, I guess I’m the opposite of a hypochondriac,” Yeager said. “I want to push through and be normal. I’m somewhat energetic. There’s nothing wrong with my mind.”
She has become a Reach to Recovery volunteer so she can counsel others who are going through similar experiences. She’s already lost some friends to the disease and is determined not to be the next statistic.
“Cancer doesn’t discriminate,” she said. “It doesn’t play by the rules. It doesn’t care how much money you have. I did everything they say to do. It didn’t show up in my blood test. I don’t have a family history. Be persistent with your doctors. If they see something suspicious in a mammogram, they need to do an ultrasound.”
Yeager, in fact, had three clear mammograms at M.D. Anderson Cancer Center before an ultrasound caught the disease, which had already spread through her body.
She said it bothers her when people dismiss cancer by saying things like, “Life is short; you never know. You could be hit by a bus tomorrow.”
“Well,” she said introspectively. “The bus is chasing me.”
Madison County raised more than $21,00 for the American Cancer Society through the annual Relay for Life event last year. This year’s local fundraising goal is $31,000.
For more information about Relay for Life, contact Erin Robinson, community manager for Relay for Life, at firstname.lastname@example.org or (979) 776-1464.