October 16, 2007

Cancer survivor enjoys camaraderie, exercise

by K.C. Jaehnig


Caption follows story

CARBONDALE, Ill. — She had a good life: a job she liked, a husband she loved, a preschooler and a baby on the way. She also had a lump in her breast, a lump whose cells, through a series of missteps, had already found their way to her lymph nodes by the time the surgeon cut it out.

After her surgery, she had steroid treatment aimed at pumping up her baby's lungs so it could survive a much-too-early entrance into the world. She gave birth to a daughter in her 32nd week. Then she had chemo, once every three weeks for six months, to track down and kill those runaway cells.

For a while, she was "bald as a bowling ball," she recalled cheerfully, and the rigors of chemo forced her to take time off from her job. Nevertheless, she continued, with her mother-in-law's help, to work "the second shift" at home.

"I had a 2-year-old and an infant — there wasn't much time to be sick," she said.

Today, Jacqueline D. Scolari, a librarian with the Southern Illinois University School of Medicine's Carbondale campus, has remained free of cancer for some 24 years. In the years since her diagnosis and treatment, she has tried downhill skiing, whitewater rafting and, as the self-proclaimed "oldest living doctoral student," earned her doctorate from SIUC.

Most recently, she took part in SIUC exercise physiologist Philip M. Anton's Strong Survivors program, aimed at building strength, decreasing fatigue and enhancing the overall quality of life for those dealing with cancer and its aftermath.

"I don't think (the decision to enroll) had so much to do with the cancer per se, " Scolari said. "That's something you just get used to having had, even though you're always aware of it — it's the shadow behind the door.

"For me, it was more the opportunity to have someone organize an exercise program just for me and get me out of my chair. I have a fairly sedentary work life, and when I get home, I have things I have to do. When it's time to relax, I park myself in front of the TV."

Scolari found the program just what she needed.

"It's very positive in approach, encouraging and supportive," she noted. "It combines an awareness of physical fitness and good nutrition based on scientific principles, but it's in layman's terms so no matter who you are, you can understand it. It was always challenging, but never impossible."

Scolari also relished the chance to be once again a part of a "very select group" dealing with cancer.

"There's a camaraderie," Scolari said. "One woman was in the midst of chemo, and when she completed it, there was a mini-celebration. Another woman was doing radiation. Her overall prognosis wasn't good, but the people there — and not just the teachers, her peers, too — were very encouraging. I formed several friendships within the group — people with whom I still have contact."

Scolari said she lost a little weight over the 12-week class but mostly built muscle tone, which was more important to her. And the organized approach to exercise has stuck with her.

"I can't say I got to the gym every day, but I'm aware of what I need to do and within my limitations, I do get my exercise in," she said.

Those facing newly diagnosed cancers might find encouragement from Scolari's experience. First, it doesn't have to be totally awful.

"I know it sounds crazy, but chemo was kind of fun," she said. "There was always at least one of my friends who would go with me, and we would sit around and do girl talk. I'm still in touch with them."

Second, the experience can add depth of life.

"It helped me to dare to do— it gave me the freedom to try things I might not have done otherwise," Scolari said. "It's like you know that if you don't do things today, you may not have tomorrow — it's not promised. You cherish what you've got."

One last piece of advice from the voice of experience:

"It's like anything that's challenging— you just do it," Scolari said.

"Sometimes it helps not to think about the big picture. Take baby steps."