Battling Bruin: Jacki

Posted November 2014

As UCLA sophomore Elyse Berlinberg helps to energize Bruin spirit in her first year on yell crew, thoughts of her mom’s health are never far from her mind. In February 2013, Elyse's mom Jacki was feeling a bit run down. Married, mother of three busy girls, and a registered nurse working in public health, she thought her fatigue was just the consequence of her active lifestyle. A visit to her doctor and a basic lab test showed that she was anemic. On April 1, 2013, a colonoscopy revealed a 3 cm tumor in her large intestine. At age 49 (younger than the recommended age to begin screening), despite no family history and leading a relatively healthy lifestyle, Jacki had colon cancer. Like most cancer patients, Jacki's life since her diagnosis has moved in a markedly different direction. Instead of primarily focusing on her work and her family (Elyse's high school graduation and her experience at UCLA, sister Kayla completing her high school years and heading to college, and youngest sister Jenna's transition from middle school to high school), Jacki has had to spend the time continually battling her disease in an attempt to achieve a remission and chance for cure.

Shortly after her diagnosis (in May), Jacki had surgery to remove the tumor, one-third of her large intestine, and 23 associated lymph nodes. The pathology exam found 15 of these lymph nodes had cancer and thus she had Stage 3C colon cancer. Jacki started chemotherapy in June. In November, she developed pneumonia (as a complication from side effects of chemotherapy) and several small metastatic lung tumors were discovered, which retrospectively were present at the time of her initial diagnosis (yet too small to be confirmed at that time). Her diagnosis changed to stage 4 colon cancer. More chemotherapy followed, and a medical debate ensued amongst her physicians regarding the next course of treatments. “My pneumonia had resolved, but changes from it persisted on my scans obscuring how much cancer was present and where it was located,” Jacki recalled, “and thus any strategy for dealing with them was controversial. Some of my doctors wanted to be aggressive; some wanted to wait. It was a very depressing and frustrating time, knowing I had more treatments to go through, with more pain and side effects, in order to have a chance to get to that point when I could be told, ‘There is no evidence of active disease’ but I couldn’t even get started. I just had to wait.”

After four months, Jacki had two portions of her left lung removed in April 2014, followed by cyberknife radiation therapy to her right lung in May. Scans in May showed a couple of spots remaining on her lung scans that are were suspicious but not ruled out as metastases, she continued to receive chemo every two weeks and periodic scans to monitor her condition in hopes for a remission. That remission came sooner than expected. Jacki and her family were blessed with the wonderful news in late August that her recent scans show no current evidence of disease! Jacki will continue lower dose maintenance chemotherapy for an undefined period of time to reduce the chance of recurrence.

Despite the life changing diagnosis, surgery, and chemotherapy Jacki maintains a positive attitude. Determined to beat her disease and not let it overwhelm her world, she continues to enjoy life to its fullest. Chemotherapy comes with its share of side effects, but when Jacki is feeling well enough she enjoys hiking, playing tennis, participating in her daughters' lives, and being as normal as possible. Jacki remarked, "Visiting Elyse at UCLA parents' weekend last fall for the sorority tailgate and football game was super fun! I was thrilled to be able to be there.” This year her dad and I were able to attend Spirit Squad Family Day where we got to enjoy watching Elyse lead the Bruin Nation in “8 Clap” fun all the way to victory!”

As a public health nurse, Jacki feels strongly the need to reach out and promote colon cancer awareness. She started a public blog with the plan to not just keep friends and family abreast of her latest treatment and care, but to also to educate about colon cancer prevention. Of cancers that affect both men and women, colorectal cancer is the second leading cause of cancer-related deaths in the United States, yet is largely preventable through colonoscopy screening. Jacki encourages her readers to know their family history and talk to their doctors about their individual need for colonoscopy screening. Jacki said of her blog, "by sharing my cancer story, I hope to not only help prevent colon cancer, but help those diagnosed with colon cancer to better understand how to improve their outcome through healthy lifestyle, diet and exercise."

If you wish to follow Jacki's public blog, you may subscribe to jackisjourneytohealth.blogspot.com.

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