Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee opens up about cancer battle

October 16, 2012 4:01:04 AM PDT
We're at the halfway mark for of Breast Cancer Awareness Month. Throughout our community, events like Race for the Cure are raising awareness about the disease and money to fight and cure it.

Just seven weeks ago, one very high profile Houstonian revealed she'd been battling cancer in private for a year and a half.

At that point, Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee hadn't even told her closest friends. But now she's ready to reveal her journey to becoming cancer free and her reasons for keeping silent on this personal battle.

Congresswoman Jackson Lee has long championed health care issues, even campaigning for federal funds for breast cancer survivors groups like Sisters Network. Several men in her family have battled cancer, but she never considered she might become a patient herself. And like many women, she admits she hadn't put her health on the top of her to-do list.

"I will own up to it," Jackson Lee said. "So on a whim ... I had some extra time and when I say that, I was leaving for a day or two and made an appointment."

Congresswoman Jackson Lee was treated at MD Anderson Hospital. She and her doctors chose a partial mastectomy followed by chemotherapy, and radiation. She admits was a less-than-ideal patient, and there were setbacks that sent her back to the hospital. She kept traveling back and forth from Washington, D.C. and even internationally. She shared with us the one photo taken during treatment. It's a photo of her sporting a bald head that she finds freeing.

"There's nothing to take care of," Jackson Lee said.

"It wasn't difficult when you realized you were going to lose your hair?" we asked.

"As a woman, you think about it, and for a moment, I was in denial because your hair is sort of, the way my hair is, my braids are long -- was long," she replied. "I thought it kind of stayed there for awhile but in actuality I was actually bald. But because my hair was so thick, it just sat on top of my head."

Still, while celebrating her daughter's runoff victory for Harris County education trustee in July, only five people knew she had breast cancer -- her daughter Ericka, her husband Elwyn, son Jason, and her brother and a breast cancer buddy. This outspoken woman was quiet on this personal fight, in part because she didn't know how it'd end.

"You know, Gina, that's very, very difficult," Jackson Lee said. "I just needed to this -- and this is another one of my messages -- in the way that I needed to do it in the way I needed to do it. I needed to continue helping others."

Now she is being warmly embraced as a role model and inspiration for breast cancer survivors, walking in downtown Houston at the Susan B. Komen Race For the Cure. And in September, she introduced legislation in the house to provide research and education for an aggressive form of breast cancer. The war on breast cancer now has a formidable warrior in its camp.

"It makes me tear up but I do love her in reflection because she carried me through," Jackson Lee said in regards to how she feels when she sees the picture of herself bald.

The bill Jackson Lee is backing is called "The Triple Negative Breast Cancer ad Research and Education Act." Some of its tenants have already been adopted by the house. This type of cancer most commonly effects women under 50 who are African American or Hispanic.


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