Janet St. James is a familiar face to North Texans from her years as a broadcast journalist—many of those years were spent covering health and medicine at WFAA. In 2015, just as she launched into her next chapter as assistant vice president of strategic communications for Medical City Healthcare, St. James received a diagnosis of stage 2 breast cancer. She later learned the cancer had become metastatic. St. James, a wife and mother of three who lives in Grapevine, spoke to us about how the diagnosis has affected her life in our first #FamiliesOfDFW highlight.
I don’t think hearing cancer, for anyone, is easy under any circumstances. Covering health and medicine for so many years, I always knew that cancer can happen to anyone, so why not me?
I’m the fourth in my immediate family of seven to be diagnosed with cancer. My dad had prostate cancer, my mom had stage 0 breast cancer, and one of my four brothers was diagnosed with testicular cancer. So I knew it could happen to anyone, especially in my family. That doesn’t mean I wasn’t scared. I admit that I broke down in the car after diagnosis.
My diagnosis came the week before I started with Medical City Healthcare—that week when you’re going out and buying new clothes, a new purse and doing those last-minute doctor appointments in advance of starting a new job. Not until the Friday before I was to start did I really know what I was going to be dealing with. I was unsure if Medical City Healthcare would want me under these circumstances. But from day one, they said, “You’re part of our family now.” They opened their arms. They showed me how a company could truly care like family and my needs have always come first.
My background helped in the way I approached the disease. I was very well educated from 25 years as a journalist, about 15 of those years covering health and medicine for WFAA. Also, because I had dense breast tissue, I was already in a breast specialist’s care. But there are so many choices once you’re diagnosed with cancer; until you need to know it, there’s so much you don’t know about the nuances of cancer and cancer treatment. I definitely needed to draw upon those years of covering health and use the connections that I had developed.
Honestly, even with all of that background, it’s still not enough to manage the overwhelming feelings at diagnosis.
Then, hearing that you have what’s considered a terminal cancer takes your breath away. I’m still processing it. I listen to my body and make decisions to the best of my ability. But I struggle with the mental aspect of cancer every day. I think everyone with cancer does to some extent. Some days I feel completely normal and other days I feel like I’m just trying to make it to the next minute.
My oldest child, Jackson, is 21. Olivia just turned 20, and my youngest, Luke, is 18. At initial diagnosis, my children were in middle school and high school. I’m a realist and I’ve never disguised the facts. I think that has helped my kids. They know that they can ask any question and that I’ll be open in my answer. In addition, because they were teenagers, they were distracted by school and friends, and that sort of normalcy helped them. And that was just fine with me. My husband Jack has been supportive in keeping our lives feeling as normal as possible.
It’s still emotional, of course. When I was diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer in November 2018, it was just before the holidays. I didn’t know if medication was going to work or for how long.
So as we started to put up the holiday decorations, for what I didn’t know might be the last time, and it was hard for me. And for my kids. My son Luke got a speeding ticket rushing home to help decorate the tree because I was in such an emotional state. I’m happy to say that I got to put the Christmas tree up again last year and it was a much happier experience.
Everybody tells you that cancer is going to change you in different ways, but I was solid in my beliefs prior to diagnosis. That’s probably a credit to the solid upbringing I had from my parents, who are now in their 80s and living in North Texas. I can tell you that my patience has changed. In some ways, I’m more patient. I can sit in a waiting room for a long period or a traffic jam, with patience I didn’t have before.
On the other hand, I don’t have the patience to wait to experience things before time runs out. We had a trip to Italy booked in April to ensure that I could experience it while I am still feeling well—and then COVID-19 hit and the trip was cancelled. COVID-19 has tested my patience on many levels. I feel time ticking away as I wait and work from home, trying to be patient for a vaccine or for the virus to dissipate.
For anyone facing cancer or another life-threatening diagnosis, I would say that knowledge is power. Educate yourself. Listen to the advice people give you with gratitude, as it’s likely offered with the best of intentions—and then use the knowledge you’ve gathered to make your own best decision.
Over the years, I have asked countless people to be honest with me for news reports so it feels right that I should do the same, hoping my honesty can help educate someone else.
And, I’m a doer. I’ll just continue doing until I can’t do anymore.
Interested in being one of our #FamiliesOfDFW? Reach out to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Photo courtesy of Park Hill Fine Art Portraits.