Jan Lee tells cancer survivor story: sees every day as bonus day
When now 54-year-old Jan Lee woke up on Thanksgiving morning in her Bethel home with her husband Allen and son Mitchell, she felt like she feels every day of her life – purely thankful to be alive. In fact, every day seems like a bonus day to her since 1985 when she was forced to look death in the face at the young age of 25.
She still remembers that night in October 1984 when she first noticed something unusual in her body.
“I was lying in bed one night and I felt a little knot under my breast,” she began. “I could roll it around like a marble.” She knew she had quickly shed 57 pounds at the time. The thought of cancer sent chills down her spine.
Her primary doctor told her the knot was her breastbone, but her instinctive gut feeling told her different – a feeling that was confirmed with a positive biopsy on Jan. 1, 1985.
She had skin cancer underneath her breast.
“When I first heard the word cancer, I was so afraid of the unknown and what I would have to face because no one in my family had ever had cancer,” Lee said. “I still had so many things I wanted to do in my life.”
She had just attended the funeral of her grandfather, Ben Revis, who died in Nov. 1984. In all reality, she feared her family would also soon be planning her own funeral.
A couple of weeks later, she braved cancer surgery performed by Dr. Nathan Williams, followed by six months of chemotherapy overseen by Dr. Richard Callahan, while he also kept a careful watch on cancerous lymph nodes found behind her stomach.
The worst part about surviving chemotherapy as a 25-year-old woman was losing her shoulder-length, blond hair that she washed and doted over daily.
“I remember one day I got out of the shower and was ringing out my hair with the towel and I looked down at my hands and my hair was all in my hands and the towel,” she recalled. “I called my cousin Karen Smith who cut it and we both cried and cried.”
After she began wearing a wig, another pivotal day was a blustery, windy day when the wind blew her wig off and she had to tie the wig under her chin to keep it from blowing away.
“I thought it was the end of the world at the time,” she said.
One day when she didn’t want to go to church and be seen in public in a wig anymore, her father Van Revis, in a tough love effort to prepare his daughter for the fight that would save her life, told her directly, “Your hair will come back and mine won’t — your life is more important than your hair.”
“Daddy told his sister later that it was the hardest thing he ever said to me, but he told me the truth,” said Lee, noting that her hair did grow back but, this time, it was coal black instead of blond.
After crossing the chemotherapy hurdle, it was time to cross another hurdle when she underwent another surgery to remove the cancerous lymph nodes. “My oncologist was watching those lymph nodes for six months and, when they went in for surgery to remove them, they couldn’t find them,” said Lee. “Many a prayer had been said for me that year and I knew that God had removed them.”
After a second round of preventive chemotherapy, she lost her hair again, but this time it grew back sandy brown.
She didn’t mind swapping the blond hair for sandy brown hair though, because her sandy brown hair ushered her into her new life which has been cancer-free now for 28 years.
When Lee looks back on that life-altering year in 1985, she says that year changed her forever.
“I learned the hard way that God was in control and I wanted to be in control but I couldn’t be,” she said, noting that the experience also made her a much more grateful person for the really important things in life.
“The little stuff didn’t really matter to me anymore but it was my family and friends and church family that really mattered,” she added. “I would like to say that I’m so thankful for my husband Allen who petted me and was the best caregiver, for my parents Van and Faye Revis, for two Christian doctors Dr. Williams and Dr. Tallahan who prayed with me and for all my family and friends and church family who stuck with me and got me through that time.”
“You have to have that support to get through something like that,” she said.
But, even more than that, this experience gave Lee the gift of a strong empathy for others at such an early age that has carried her through her whole life. That unique empathy has been expressed over the years in many ways — when she cared for her mother who later died of kidney cancer, when she talks to the sick in the community on a very personal level and when she is quick to be-friend grieving families. Neighbors say she and her husband have even been known to walk in the deep snow to comfort a grieving family.
That’s simply because of one reason — she has been there.
“I try to talk to people and tell them to not give up and keep going,” she said.
When people ask Lee her age, she says she is always proud to tell them because that funeral that she thought her family would have to plan just didn’t happen in 1985.
“I always tell them I am 54 years old and I am very glad to be here,” she said.
To contact the Lee family, call 458-7366.