Note: Originally published on Authority Magazine; Interview by Savio P. Clemente
Cancer is a horrible and terrifying disease. Yet millions of people have beaten the odds and beat cancer. In this interview series, we are talking to cancer survivors to share their stories, in order to offer hope and provide strength to people who are being impacted by cancer today. As a part of this interview series, I had the pleasure of interviewing Janelle Hail.
Janelle is a forty-one-year breast cancer survivor, CEO and Chairman of the Board of National Breast Cancer Foundation (NBCF). Janelle and her late husband Neal founded NBCF in 1991 with a mission to help women now and inspire hope to those affected by breast cancer through early detection, education, and support services. The NBCF worldwide headquarters is in Frisco, Texas, where they offer medical services to needy women through their hospital network across the United States and support services for breast cancer patients throughout the United States and worldwide.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! We really appreciate the courage it takes to publicly share your story. Before we start, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your background and your childhood backstory?
I grew up in Lubbock, Texas, with my parents and a brother who is five years older. Neal and I met while I was attending Texas Tech University as a freshman. After four years in the Navy, Neal had transferred in his senior year of college from Texas Christian University to Texas Tech University. We fell in love and married within the year when he was 26 and I was 19. We had 52 years of marriage until Neal passed away in 2018.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
One of my favorite life lesson quotes is, “Our pathways often twist through stormy landscapes; but when we look back, we’ll see a thousand miles of miracles and answered prayers.” –David Jeremiah
Many times, when you are in the middle of the storms of life, all you can see are the billowing clouds and rugged landscape you must climb over. As I have learned to trust God with my life, I can see that He was there all the time helping me move forward and bringing about beauty in my life.
Let’s now shift to the main part of our discussion about surviving cancer. Do you feel comfortable sharing with us the story surrounding how you found out that you had cancer?
I encountered breast cancer when I was 34 years old and married with three sons, ages 3, 10, and 13. One night as I was getting ready for bed, I remembered learning about breast healthcare from my health class in junior high school. I was surprised to discover a lump in my breast that night, as I had always taken care of my health, ate well, and exercised.
At that point in my life things were wonderful. We were building our dream home in another city with my husband, Neal, traveling back and forth to oversee the progress. Suddenly our lives were rudely interrupted with a health issue that led me along a dark, unknown pathway.
I called my doctor the next day for an appointment to find out what was going on with my body. With some mounting female health issues, my doctor recommended a hysterectomy and a biopsy of the breast lump at the same time. It’s still hard to believe that there was no internet in 1980. Every answer had to come from one’s doctor. For some reason, I wasn’t concerned about the biopsy. I figured if there was a problem, the lump could be removed, and my hysterectomy would take care of the other issues. How naïve could I have been? That was the way of thinking back then. Get a good doctor to fix you up, and you’ll be on your way to life again.
When I rolled out of recovery from hysterectomy surgery and settled into my room at the hospital, I awakened at 6:01 a.m. to see my husband, mother, and mother-in-law standing at my bedside. My first thought was, how nice it was for them to come see me this early.
That wasn’t why they were there. Neal leaned over my bed and tenderly whispered, “Janelle, they found cancer.” I will always remember the kindness in his eyes as he kissed me on the cheek.
“What? Tell me what I have to do to get rid of it,” I said. There were few options. One was to have a mastectomy. The other, a lumpectomy, which had only been around a few years without enough data to prove its long-term effectiveness.
I said a quick prayer, “God, please help me know what to do.” A clear answer came to me to have the mastectomy.
Two days later I returned to surgery, this time to have a mastectomy. With no complications, I planned to resume life. But my life would never be the same again. The changing course of my life started the day I went home from the hospital. Too many things had happened at one time!
What was the scariest part of that event? What did you think was the worst thing that could happen to you?
When Neal told me I had breast cancer, fear of death gripped me. I had no knowledge of the disease, and there were no resources available except what my doctor told me. Eleven years later when Neal and I founded National Breast Cancer Foundation, we wanted to give those resources to women so they could make informed decisions about their own healthcare. We wanted to replace fear of the disease with hope through early detection, which saved my life.
How did you react in the short term?
I had no choice when I left the hospital but to take care of my family. My husband needed his wife; my children needed their mother.
After dinner one night at dusk, I stood at my kitchen sink washing dishes. There were few trees in West Texas, but one small tree outside my kitchen window caught my eye. There was only one red leaf remaining on the tree, and it seemed to dance in the fall breeze. My emotions were as scattered as the pile of leaves on the ground beneath the tree. I said, “I want my life to be like that leaf, brilliant until the end.”
The memory of that red leaf drifted through the years with me until we founded NBCF and incorporated it into our logo, representing life, growth, and hope for the future. I never imagined that an ordinary event like washing dishes would give me an epiphany before NBCF was ever conceived.
After the dust settled, what coping mechanisms did you use? What did you do to cope physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually?
As my life began to move forward from the first day I went home from the hospital, I followed the natural pathway in front of me. I volunteered at a local hospital to fill the empty void of life with the enjoyment of giving to others while learning the ways of the hospital and how to communicate with doctors. Little did I know that I would work with medical facilities and doctors across the world in four continents in future years.
I spent eleven years involved with the National Speakers Association, learning everything possible to advance my skills. During that time, I also attended numerous writer conferences and continue today to study the art of writing.
There are no books, no manuals, no advice that solves the emotional, mental, physical, and spiritual aloneness following such a loss. I felt sadness over losing my breast, a once lovely part of my young body. I had fearful thoughts that my husband would leave me, and people would have nothing to do with me. Doctors could only treat the body, not the spirit. I did what I have done since I became a Christian at the age of nine. I prayed and trusted the Lord to guide my life.
One morning as I dressed for the day, I caught a glimpse of my broken body in the mirror. I stopped, took a deep breath, and looked down at my feet as I said aloud, “I have two feet to go places, two hands to work, a mind to think, and a mouth to speak. I will use all of those to do the will of God in my life.” That was a turning point for me. No longer did I look at my brokenness, but rather saw myself from the heart of my Heavenly Father who loved me as I was. That was my “move forward moment”.
Is there a particular person you are grateful towards who helped you learn to cope and heal? Can you share a story about that?
My husband, Neal, loved me and encouraged me every step of the way. I was concerned about how losing a breast affected him. A few years previously, he nearly died during gallbladder surgery, leaving him with an 18” scar across his stomach.
He said to me one day, “Tell me, Janelle. Does my scar bother you?”
“No, it doesn’t. I don’t even notice it,” I said.
“That’s the way I feel about your scar, too. I only see my beautiful wife. You are the same woman I have always loved,” he said.
When we founded NBCF years later, we realized there were many women with no support, so caring for those affected by breast cancer all the way through their journey became the heartbeat of NBCF.
In my own cancer struggle, I sometimes used the idea of embodiment to help me cope. Let’s take a minute to look at cancer from an embodiment perspective. If your cancer had a message for you, what do you think it would want or say?
I looked at cancer as my enemy, one that wanted to destroy me. I imagined cancer saying to me, “I will kill you. You don’t stand a chance against my powers.”
Here’s what I said to cancer, “You are not going to kill me. I am going after you and will hunt you down in the darkest parts of the earth, shining a bright light of education on you so women will not live with fear of the unknown and can make healthy decisions. I will be your Number One enemy!”
Today that is exactly what we have done at NBCF. We educate women and their families about early detection, offering support services, and help on their journey through breast cancer.
What did you learn about yourself from this very difficult experience? How has cancer shaped your worldview? What has it taught you that you might never have considered before? Can you please explain with a story or example?
Dealing with breast cancer revamped my worldview. I was always on the outside of the disease looking at others who had breast cancer, feeling sorry for them, but helpless to do anything about it. Now I was on the inside of the disease looking out at the pain and desperation that I experienced, along with others.
Helping others has become my life work.
How have you used your experience to bring goodness to the world?
My patience and understanding have greatly increased since breast cancer. I am freer to let go of petty issues that many times are unnecessary burdens and have a clear focus on my purpose of life. I found that looking only at my own losses can easily breed bitterness, hatred, and other negative attitudes. Helping others brings the joy out of my heart and a smile on my face. I know that through National Breast Cancer Foundation I am enriching the lives of women worldwide.
What are a few of the biggest misconceptions and myths out there about fighting cancer that you would like to dispel?
Here are a couple of misconceptions about breast cancer:
Before education on breast cancer emerged for the public to research on the internet, people thought they could catch cancer from another person, which is not the case.
People think breast cancer is an automatic death sentence. There are 3.8 million breast cancer survivors today. NBCF has developed local and national support groups for survivors to empower women with help and hope on their journey.
The internet is an amazing tool where we give correct information on our website, nbcf.org. We dispel the helplessness people feel when they don’t know where to go for help. We provide support services at every stage of their disease and give them hope. No woman should have to face breast cancer alone, and we are here to be the emotional and physical support they need with options to make wise choices.
Fantastic. Here is the main question of our interview. Based on your experiences and knowledge, what advice would you give to others who have recently been diagnosed with cancer? What are your “5 Things You Need To Beat Cancer? Please share a story or example for each.
Things You Need to Beat Cancer:
- Seek medical help as soon as you discover something different about your breasts, such as a nipple discharge, a dimpling of the tissue, a redness, or other unusual symptoms. I have thought often about what would have happened if I had not followed through with medical help when I first found my lump. There would be no National Breast Cancer Foundation. As we celebrate NBCF’s 30th anniversary, we have given funding for 305,000 breast cancer screenings and diagnostic services and 1.7 million patient navigation services.
- Reach out to people who will surround you with care and help. When women come to us for help, we find a way to connect them with resources. People frequently tell us that NBCF makes them feel loved and accepted. When you have once experienced that kind of care, you can’t help but give it away to others. Our volunteers tirelessly pack Hope Kits filled with thoughtful and comforting gifts and encouraging notes for thousands of breast cancer patients throughout the United States.
- End bad habits such as overeating, excessive alcohol, smoking, and other things that deteriorate your health. Bad habits are distracting and can easily derail good health practices. Happiness comes from inside a person and flows outward, creating a better lifestyle and draws good people your way.
- The best gift you can give those you love is to take care of yourself. It is time to turn your attention to preventative healthcare. We knew of a mother who died while saving up money she stored in an old coffee can so she could buy her son tennis shoes instead of using it to get a mammogram. Neglecting one’s own health can lead to tragedy for those you love.
- Run away from bad attitudes and unhealthy thoughts that fuel the fire of fear. Fear can be the most destructive force to deal with. It can keep a person frozen in procrastination and indecision. I have met many women who waited a long time to get medical help and jeopardized their health doing so. I have heard women say they didn’t go to the doctor for fear of what they might find. Early detection can help eliminate later stages of breast cancer.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the greatest amount of people, what would that be?
Early stages of breast cancer offer more options for a healthy outcome.
Take care of your body and educate others around. Early detection saves lives!
We are very blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.
I would be honored to have breakfast or lunch with Jerry Jenkins, 21-time New York Times bestselling author who has written nearly 200 books with over 72 million copies sold. He is one of the most successful writers of our time and generously shares his knowledge and skills through The Jerry Jenkins Writers Guild.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
Readers can follow my work on nbcf.org.
Thank you so much for sharing these important insights. We wish you continued success and good health!