In the “days BC (before cancer)”, Jess BeCraft was a self-proclaimed DINK (dual income, no kids). A career-driven, world-traveling, Chicago-loving woman, Jess and her husband decided a little over three years ago that they were ready to start a family.
“We knew life would dramatically change,” Jess said. “But we had no idea just how much.”
Jess had an unplanned C-section in January 2018. During the procedure, which she thought was taking longer than expected, she heard her OB say to the resident, “It may have been a blessing that we had to go this route.”
Jess delivered a baby girl. And less than a week later, her doctor delivered some shocking news: Jess had low-grade ovarian cancer. At first Jess thought, “low grade, it must be early. I’m sure I’ll be fine.”
However, when she met her gynecologic oncologist two days later, she learned that she was actually stage 3C. She also learned that her type is rare, comprising 5-10% of cases, that it grows slower, and it’s relatively resistant to chemotherapy.
Racing against the clock
Because her cancer is slower growing, Jess is putting all of her hope – and time and energy – into research. Last year, she formed a group called the Ovary Achievers (harkening to her go-getter personality and former marketing career) that raised $20,000 through Chicago’s Ovarian Cycle.
And at the beginning of 2020, she launched her own nonprofit, an OCRA Community Partner called STAAR (Survive. Thrive. Advocate. Advance research.) Ovarian Cancer Foundation. She, along with two other surviving women who are also in their 30’s, are dedicated to funding the work of scientists who are focusing on low-grade ovarian cancer.
She started the STAAR Foundation after spending time in the hospital and going through treatments that didn’t work. “I was at a point where I just wanted to do something, and this is my doing something.” She is hoping to host a few cornerstone fundraisers, like a golf tournament in the Chicago area, as well as encourage other women with low-grade tumors to do Facebook fundraisers for their birthday.
“We’re just doing small things but hoping to make some level of impact on the more specific part of our cancer,” Jess explained.
“That’s not enough”
Jess recognizes that she may never get to NED (no evidence of disease) but she had a frank conversation with her doctor, asking her if, with all of these treatments, she could be around for a long time. Her doctor said she could be around for “quite a while.”
“So I asked her, ‘what does that mean?’” Jess said. “She told me seven or eight years. I looked at her and said, ‘that’s not enough.’”
Neither Jess nor her doctor are focusing on an ‘expiration date’, however, and her doctor assured Jess that she wouldn’t give up if Jess wouldn’t either. Still, Jess thinks about her 2-year-old daughter, and what her life will be like without a mom. She says, “My husband didn’t get into this to raise someone by himself.”
“The things I think about most often are ‘am I going to see my daughter go to kindergarten?’” Jess said. “And it’s not even for me, like will I see this. It’s more that I want her to have a mom.”
Jess is balancing being in the present for her young child and also preparing for a time when she might not be. She created an email address for her daughter when she was born and sends her notes to read someday. She’s looking into a video-recording service that will allow her to talk about her life and leave a repository of experiences and wishes. She’s even planning to buy cards for life’s milestones – a 16th birthday, graduation – so that her daughter will have something from her at those moments.
“The hardest thing of this motherhood angle is what if I do pass away before she’s old enough to remember me?” Jess shared. “And how do I make sure that she still has the impact of a mom on her life?”
Not fighting, but not quitting
Jess has a list of words and phrases that she doesn’t love. ‘Survivor’ (“We are surviving, for sure. But I haven’t survived yet.”) ‘She lost her battle’ (“I absolutely despise this. Why? Why did she lose her battle? She didn’t fight hard enough?”)
“I also don’t love ‘journey,’” Jess said.
Jess will tell you that she’s “been at this cancer thing” for two years, and that what she and others like her are dealing with stinks. And while she’s doing everything she can — learning as much as she can about the disease, raising funds for research, educating medical students (through Survivors Teaching Students) so that they can have greater awareness about ovarian cancer and become more compassionate physicians — at the end of the day, Jess is a normal human being who is allowed to feel sorry for herself.
“It’s okay to mourn the loss of your former self because she’s not coming back,” Jess said. “But then, wake up again and get back on the horse.”
If there’s one thing about Jess, it’s that she’s real. “I don’t like to hide. I don’t have Instagram cancer and regular cancer. They’re the same for me.”
She’ll tell people she’s gained a ton of weight from the treatments. That she makes plans and has to cancel them all the time. That it’s not always rainbows and butterflies. But Jess does see a silver lining, though she wishes she could have gotten the perspective without this experience.
“Making memories is so much more important than being at work until 7pm,” Jess said. She recognizes that she is living her life differently, being more present and in the moment, placing more importance on that family vacation.
“Even though I know that the likelihood of ever being NED is extremely low,” Jess said, “I do maintain that hope. And if I’m able to get back at it, I just think that I would come back into my corporate life as a very different person.”