On Tuesday, January 9, The Hormel Institute hosted the Austin Chamber of Commerce’s annual Business After Hours event to kick off the 2024 Paint the Town Pink (PTTP) fundraising season and introduce our 2024 PTTP Ambassador: Jessie Meyer.
“When asked to take on this role, I debated briefly, but knew in my heart that this would be a good opportunity for me to share my story in the hopes of promoting preventative care and the importance of cancer research,” Meyer said in her speech that night.
Meyer, a social worker, was diagnosed with triple-negative breast cancer — an aggressive form of breast cancer with a high recurrence rate — in May 2016 at the age of 35.
“I had no idea how much this diagnosis would change my life,” Meyer said. “I just knew I was going to do whatever I needed to fight to keep that life.”
A mom of three, Meyer’s children were 9, 6, and 4 years old when she was diagnosed.
After a bilateral mastectomy and 16 rounds of chemotherapy, Meyer and her doctors were confident they’d beaten the cancer. That course of treatments wrapped up in January 2017. She proceeded to conduct self-exams regularly and check in with her oncology team to make sure it stayed gone.
But in September 2018, Meyer found a suspicious lump during a self-exam. After an ultrasound and biopsy, she discovered her cancer returned.
“I was devastated and scared, and I didn’t want to tell anyone, including our children,” said Meyer. “My son’s response was, ‘Mom, you beat it before, and you’re gonna beat it again.’ I was not as confident as he was until I met with my team of doctors who immediately gave me options. They went to work and developed a plan of care to attack the cancer.”
This second round of treatments included IV chemotherapy, surgery, proton beam radiation, and oral chemotherapy, all of which was an 18-month process.
“I am happy to say in September of 2023, I graduated from oncology, which means I do not have to go back,” Meyer said to a room full of applause.
After a cumulative five years in treatments, Meyer is now able to say she’s been cancer-free for five years, which she added is “huge for triple-negative survivors.”
“Without the advancements that have been made in cancer research, I may not be standing here today to share my story,” she said.
“My 17-, 14-, and 12-year olds still would not have their mother that they need. My husband would not have his wife, although I’m sure there are days he might question if that’s a good thing,” Meyer joked. She continued, “My parents wouldn’t have their daughter, my sisters wouldn’t have their sister, I could go on.”
After the event, we caught up with Meyer to hear more of her insights on the experience of navigating cancer and treatments, the importance of cancer research, and more. Here’s what she shared.
On being Ambassador
“It’s a good way for me to be able to feel like I’m doing something to give back,” said Meyer. “Survivor’s guilt is a real thing. … You go through this journey, and you see the same people, and you make friends when you’re in treatments, and unfortunately, some of those people aren’t as lucky as I was. So to be able to continue to fight so that more people don’t have to go through that, more people continue to live on, I think, is huge.”
“This is why I stand here today: to ask people to continue to donate to fund the cancer research that is necessary to help save additional lives. We need more options for treatment for those less fortunate than I was,” she said.
Advice on coping with cancer: just a bump in the road
Meyer expressed gratitude for the strong support system that helped her prepare for her fight.
“I had a wonderful team of doctors … with the advancements that have been made, and the treatments that were available, they assured me that I had options,” said Meyer. “I have an extremely wonderful support system: family, and friends; I couldn’t ask for better people to surround me.”
“Make sure you surround yourself with as many people, and when they ask what can they do to help, give them something, even if it’s a little something. … It does mean a lot.”
As life-altering as cancer can be, Meyer says there’s also power in doing what you can to maintain a sense of normalcy.
“Try to keep your life as normal as it was,” she said. “A huge thing for me was being able to feel like I was in control of something. So I had my mastectomy on a Tuesday, and that Saturday, I went to a baseball tournament for my son.”
“It wasn’t easy,” she admitted. “But I think that really helped me — I wasn’t going to let this interfere with my life. I was going to continue to live, and this was going to be a bump in the road.”
That said, Meyer also says cancer isn’t something you simply forget about once you’ve gone through it — but being cancer-free, and having the opportunity to be around for loved ones’ milestones, large or small, becomes something to cherish even more.
“[Being diagnosed with cancer] changes your life. It’s always in your mind; I don’t think you can ever get it out of your mind, necessarily,” Meyer said. “For me, I was 35, my kids were very young, so my fear was not watching them graduate, not being there for their wedding day, having them have to grow up without a mom.
“So I think just the little things, the fact that I’m literally running around like a chicken with my head cut off trying to keep up with the kids, I love it. I love every minute of it, and I will never take any of it for granted, because I get to be here to do this.”
As a social worker, Meyer works to practice what she preaches — and she said being around other supportive social workers was a big help, too.
“Don’t worry about things until you have to worry about them. Different coping strategies that I teach others, I utilize for myself — which I did before, I just had to rely on them a little bit more,” she said. “Don’t be ashamed to ask for help if you need help with things. I think mental health is a huge stigma; I know this because I’m a social worker. Again, I don’t know that you can get a diagnosis like cancer and not have it impact your mental health. … I think acknowledging and recognizing where you’re at and what support you need is huge. And being able to reach out for them.”
Everyone could use more grace
Battling cancer is unquestionably challenging for both patients and their loved ones, but Meyer took a moment to acknowledge that anyone we come across may be fighting an invisible battle — and everyone we come across could benefit from a little more grace.
“Your life basically gets put on hold,” Meyer said. “You’re at the mercy of the doctors and the treatment team. It definitely makes things difficult for a while, and that’s where I say, leaning on your support team. I mean, we had people come and bring us meals and do different things so I didn’t have to worry about that.
“The one thing I think for me was such a challenge was, the chemo that I had, I lost all my hair — that was the hardest thing.”
Part of what made that so challenging, she said, had to do with some juxtapositions between her and one of her sister’s experiences as both were struggling with health challenges around the same time.
“She suffered for almost two years before she was diagnosed with her autoimmune disease and got treatment and help. To the naked eye, she looked fine … but she was miserable. She didn’t get to do a lot of things and wasn’t able to function in her day-to-day. …
“I think if there’s one message that I could share, it’s don’t make assumptions based on what you can see. Everybody’s going through something. … We may not know what it is, but always be willing to give people grace, and treat people with respect regardless.”
Importance of cancer research (and location)
“People always told me I was strong and brave during my fight when in reality, I was just doing what I needed to do to stay alive. It wasn’t easy, but it was possible. I had options,” Meyer said.
Options made possible by cancer research.
“Without cancer research, I would not have had the opportunity to win the battle that I did. Unfortunately, some of the people who battled the cancer diagnosis alongside me were not as fortunate to have the same options, and they lost their battle.”
“I had an aunt who had breast cancer. Her breast cancer was a different kind of breast cancer, so hers was estrogen-fed, or estrogen-positive.” With her own triple-negative breast cancer, Meyer said, “None of the three receptors were positive. Mine wasn’t fed by estrogen, progesterone, or HER2 [human epidermal growth factor].”
“All of the different kinds of cancer, and to have all the specialized treatments … is a direct result of cancer research … The importance of cancer research is to stay on top of that … so that these different variations and different treatments that can be available to people that need it.”
“We’re so fortunate in this area to have The Hormel Institute in our back door, to have Mayo Clinic in our back door,” Meyer said. “I mean, I was able to stay at home and live with my family when I went through radiation. … I met a girl who came from South Carolina — she and her mom lived here for six weeks while she went through radiation…
“I don’t think I realized how blessed we are until I had to go through it, and I think we’re just so fortunate in this area to have two wonderful [institutions] who are really dedicating themselves to people’s health.”
“I want to thank the doctors and scientists who have dedicated their life’s work to cancer research,” Meyer said. “You are making a difference every day, and I will forever be grateful for every day that I am given and everyone that I have met along the way.”