There’s no ‘right way’ to deal with shock or grief.
The feelings are intense, and reactions to it are personal and varied. But Jaimie Kusher needed to feel like she was in control of a very out-of-control situation when her mom was diagnosed with ovarian cancer in June of 2015. Jaimie was 29 years old at the time.
Jaimie describes herself as being Type A when it comes to her family. “I joked that I had three children: my mom, my dad and my brother,” she said. “I didn’t choose to give birth to them, but here we are.”
So in addition to staying on top of the barrage of surgeries and chemotherapy that her mom’s diagnosis set into motion, Jaimie found even more energy and threw it into fundraising for ovarian cancer research.
“I didn’t know what I was doing”
The first event she held was in January of 2016 at the Stumble Inn, where her friend was bartending at the time. They set up a happy hour and a raffle, invited some friends, and raised $6,000. At the time, her mother was very sick, on a lot of painkillers, and not very aware of Jaimie’s efforts to fight the disease.
The next fundraiser she helped to plan was an Ovarian Cycle spin event scheduled for December 5th, 2017. Jaimie’s mother passed away less than two weeks before.
“I think I cried through the entire thing,” Jaimie recalled. “I don’t know how we went through with it. We didn’t know what else to do.” Her brother had never done a spin class before, and both he and Jaimie sat on their bikes the entire time, doing back-to-back sessions, spinning furiously.
“We wore each other out. My brain just kept saying, ‘there’s whiskey at the end of this ride. Let’s just get there.’”
That event raised $62,000, which was bittersweet for Jaimie. On the one hand, there are advances in research that she feels she can directly tie to the efforts she put forth, and that feels incredible to her.
“But on the flip side, I wasn’t able to help my mom,” Jaimie said. “That’s something that’s tough for me and always will be.”
“She was everything”
Jaimie describes her mother, Janet (Janie to her family and friends) as the kindest human she’s ever met, and probably will ever meet. Janet was a second-grade teacher, and spent her life fighting for kids whose home lives were suboptimal, making sure their time in school was a refuge.
“She busted her ass 24/7 making sure that every child in her classroom, and person in her life, felt safe, taken care of, and comfortable,” Jaimie said. “Everyone came before her; that’s how she functioned, and that’s what made her so good. And as her child, I reaped all the benefits of her selflessness.”
It’s this quintessential goodness that Jaimie struggles with most. Not that anyone deserves to get cancer, but Jaimie can’t wrap her head around the fact that her mom, who didn’t smoke or drink or do drugs … who “followed the rules,” could get such a devastating illness.
“It’s like the only thing that was wrong with her,” Jaimie said, “was that she was TOO good. So how does a person like that get a disease like this?”
Not a fair fight
Jaimie takes issue with the phrase “they lost their battle,” often used when describing those who died from cancer. It is a battle, she said, but it’s not a fair fight. Jaimie looks back on her mother’s two-and-a-half-year struggle and doesn’t know if she herself could have the strength her mother had.
“I don’t have children yet, but that you could love your children and your family so much that you’re willing to literally be tortured for two and a half years just to try to live for them,” Jaimie said. “That is something that is not only impressive, but breaks my heart.”
Regarding the strength Jaimie herself displayed in holding down a full-time job, living in a different city, going to help her mom every three days, maintaining relationships with people, staying on top of the ever-changing treatments and protocols, Jaimie said it was just adrenaline.
“I don’t think it’s a cognitive decision that we’re making. We just do,” she said. “If your parent or spouse or child is sick, you don’t have a choice in the matter. You just go from step A to step B because you love that person and you want to try to figure out how to make them as happy and healthy as you can.”
The best medicine
Travel has always been something that fuels Jaimie’s spirit, and she tries to make sure there’s always a trip in the works. While she has a bucket list of places she’d like to visit, she has learned the hard way that life doesn’t always go as planned. She describes herself as more of a “fly by the seat of my pants” kind of traveler.
Jaimie and her mother were great travel partners. And so after the first year of treatment (or, “year of hell” as Jaimie described it), Jaimie called her mom’s doctor and asked if she could take her on a yoga retreat … to Tulum. Her mom’s doctor gave the okay.
“We got to the airport,” Jaimie said, “and I was like ‘F#@&! What did I just do? We’re not near a doctor. Technically she’s okay right now, but she’s so frail.’”
The week was rejuvenating. Jaimie’s mom returned with a desire to eat healthy and meditate. And even more, the mother and daughter shared special time together.
“Imagine being a person who was poked and prodded and puking 24/7 for three months, then enduring a 12-hour long surgery with complication after complication, then another six months of chemo hell, and then just getting on a plane with your daughter because you wanted to show her you were going to be okay,” Jaimie recalled. “She always told me I was her medicine, but the truth is that she was mine.”
Fundraising with a vigor
Organizing and planning fundraisers–to date, an event at a bar and two Ovarian Cycles–has provided a way for Jaimie to channel her energy and grief. So far, the team has raised and donated more than $110,000. The first year, they directed the funds to support research led by Dr. Rachel Grisham at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. This past year, they chose Dr. Sohrab Shah.
With two spin events under her belt, Jaimie has tried to “dethrone” herself as chair of the committee. “It didn’t work,” she said.
It’s like a full-time job, and when she can’t give it her all, Jaimie feels like she’s letting others down. She also wonders if she has the will to keep going. But there was one moment in the fall of 2019 that changed everything. Jaimie attended an OCRA event and saw Dr. Shah in a conversation with her mother’s surgeon, Dr. Chi.
“If there’s anyone you want operating on your mother’s five-foot-nothing tiny little body, it’s Dr. Chi,” Jaimie said. “When I turned and saw Dr. Chi talking to the doctor we chose to give the grant money to, that my army and I raised, every piece of why I am doing this came full circle.”
Jaimie has always said her time is worth it if she can help prevent one other daughter from watching her mother die the way Jaimie did. But when she saw Dr. Chi and Dr. Shah in conversation, she thought, “This person who gave my mom potentially a year and a half more than she would have had, I’m impacting the work that he’s doing? I’m helping to raise money to feed that beautiful mind? God-f&@ing-speed!”
Jaimie, we wish you godspeed and thank you from the bottom of all of our hearts. Ride on!
Jaimie dedicates this post not only to her mother, but to Susan Fisher Haag who passed last week. Jaimie said of Susan, “she was my beacon of light” and credits their fundraising success largely to Susan’s efforts. Make a donation in honor of everyone impacted today.