A true advocate for the community, Jackie Aguilera has dedicated her life to service and helping others overcome obstacles and live life to the fullest. She already strived to practice in her own life what she preached to others. But then an oncologist delivered the news: “You have cancer.” Now she must walk the talk and apply her own lessons to overcome the biggest obstacle.
Aguilera is a project manager at the Mayor's Office for Adult Literacy. She has been a City of Houston employee for three and a half years and has worked in adult literacy for almost 40 years now. Her experience goes back to another era, one when access to information hadn’t proliferated as it has today. And in some cases, there wasn’t even information at all — like during the AIDS crisis where she helped people that no one wanted to help or even touch.
Uncertainty never stopped her from supporting others, a combination of her personality, advocacy, career, and visionary way of thinking led her to collaborate and develop campaigns that use technology to bring literacy to adults.
She defines her job as bringing knowledge to the community in every aspect of life — because change never stops, and it’s not just about learning to read and write, it's literacy in a financial matter, technology, health, and day-to-day life.
You have to walk the talk
“Even if it's uncomfortable or unpleasant, if something can save your life, just put on your big girl pants, and go do it.” Aguilera says when it comes to health checkups.
As a provider, a helper and an educator, Aguilera’s career has been focused on connecting people with resources and opportunities that enable them to reach their full potential. She often encourages people saying: “You can do this,” or “Keep going.” But what happens when the coin flips and you must walk the talk — can you do this? Can you keep going?
Following her own advice and walking the talk, Aguilera had a mammogram appointment as part of a regular health checkup. During the screening, the technician told her they needed a few more pictures but it was nothing to be alarmed by, that it was just to make sure they had enough information for the radiologist. A few weeks later she went back for an ultrasound and was told that a lumpectomy would be the next step.
A lumpectomy is a surgery to remove cancer or other abnormal tissue from the breast. But it may also be used to remove certain noncancerous or precancerous breast abnormalities. At this point and after being informed about all the possibilities by her health providers, Aguilera took a deep breath, stayed calm, and told herself, “It could be nothing” and “You can’t run with the unknown.” Despite the uncertainty, she decided to believe and follow the process.
Before the surgical procedure, Aguilera was open and transparent about the situation with her partner, family, friends, and her director at work, allowing her to feel connected to her support network from the beginning.
At the age of 57 in March, Aguilera was diagnosed with Stage 1 breast cancer. Even though it was caught early, by the time she was scheduled for surgery in June her aggressive cancer had advanced to Stage 2 and was affecting her lymph nodes.
Everyone’s experience with cancer is different
“We have this overwhelming concept of breast cancer; we have all the details, research and the definition, but every person's experience is unique,” Aguilera said.
As an adult education professional, Aguilera is very aware of diseases — including breast cancer risk, factors and importance, especially being a woman close to middle age. Personally, she has supported close friends going through this disease but had no family history that indicated a higher risk for her.
According to the American Cancer Society, only 15% of American women who get breast cancer have an immediate family member diagnosed with it. Most breast cancer cases have no family history, and the reason may be related to environmental and lifestyle factors.
That Cancer Society study also suggested that 1 out of 8 women will develop breast cancer sometime in their life, meaning that 30% of all new female cancers each year are breast cancer. That makes it the second most common cancer in women in the U.S. (It is the most common cancer worldwide.)
Aguilera decided to focus on what she could handle, what was in her hands, and what she could do more than on the “what ifs” or the “unknowns,” as she calls them.
Knowing your rights and understanding your health benefits is the first advice she has for COH employees. Trusting her support network, Aguilera sought advice from one of her friends who is a breast cancer survivor and decided to have her surgery and further treatments at the Baylor St. Luke's Medical Center.
Aguilera said: “I am one of the lucky ones because I work in a system that provides good healthcare options, and I am able to take advantage of them because I have the support of where I work.” And this is something she can add to her support network. “I am grateful for working with the City of Houston and having an employer that has that type of sensitivity to provide this kind of support,” she added.
Feeling comfort from the health assistance she was receiving, Aguilera went into surgery with peace of mind. Even though there was more reconstruction than expected because the surgery removed more than originally planned, she still felt secure with the decision she made.
Waking up after surgery and seeing herself in the mirror as she had never seen herself before was probably one of the hardest parts of this process, Aguilera said. But as soon as her partner told her, “They’re still perfect,” Aguilera knew she had enough reasons to keep going.
We can do nothing but our best
Coping mechanisms are an essential part of who we are and become a part of our personality. For Aguilera, dealing with cancer — just like anything else in her life — in a humorous way has been vital.
Aguilera is the kind of person who will throw a joke here and there to make people feel comfortable and break the tension. She won't let others feel bad for her, but she will let you know when she needs your support.
Staying positive while communicating with humor is an essential part of her healing process. Even if it may seem she is not taking things seriously, this is how she deals with her cancer in the presence of others. But she also has her moments alone when she deals with it in a more serious way.
“You can’t worry yourself because worry will destroy you,” she said, explaining that it is OK to have days when you can’t deal with it and have a meltdown. Aguilera said she recommends embracing your situation and doing whatever you have to so it doesn’t destroy you. And if it knocks you down, then get back up.
Sometimes this means putting your best face up front and going through the day. She believes that whatever a person is growing through can be used for something else or to learn from it.
“I'm not saying cancer has a purpose but it's going to be what you make of it,” she said. “And that’s what keeps me going.”
Where your mind goes your body follows
In a challenging life situation with a lot of uncertainty, Aguilera remains positive and believes that paying attention to what really matters is the key, instead of thinking of what could have been done differently.
“Sometimes you get an extra thing to deal with. You didn’t ask for it, you didn’t plan for it, but it comes down to what are you going to do about it and how are you going to make it through,” she said.
Aguilera’s cancer was hard to detect. There were no signs of it in physical exams and she never felt sick or had pain. Apart from the age factor, there were no reasons to consider she was at increased risk.
Some cancers are hormone receptor-positive and some are negative. The receptors are proteins that normal breast cells and some cancers use to attach to hormones such as estrogen and progesterone in order to grow. Jackie’s breast cancer is estrogen-based — what she describes in a playful way as "her own hormones turning against her." An increased risk factor for hormone receptor-positive cancers is not having kids. If she had known that before, she would have taken her mammograms more seriously.
“I was supposed to have my appointment in August 2022, but I skipped it because I was too busy and rescheduled it for spring of this year." She reflected on her decision and added: "I skipped something that later became the determinant of my living.”
Make time for what really matters
Learning from her experience and moving forward, her focus now is on what really matters: the worth of the small, precious things in life, and time. She regrets missing out on things like her grandson's kindergarten graduation because she was busy with work and, of course, rescheduling her mammogram for the same reason. But instead of staying stuck in what can’t be changed, she chooses to value everything, even the smaller things such as a dragonfly deciding to perch on her arm. Or the connection with nature she feels when she’s surrounded by trees in a forest.
Her cancer diagnosis taught her to stop, take a deep breath, stay calm, and rethink her purpose and intentions.
Having clear that she wants to promote the good in the world and drill down health literacy on a deeper level, especially when it comes to breast cancer. She knows her purpose. As for her intentions, being aware of the support she has received through this hard time and knowing that a support network is built by being there for others without expecting anything in return, she knows where she wants to be. She is ready to make more memories with her partner, their three daughters, two grandkids, and their third grandchild who is on the way.
At this time, according to the American Cancer Society, there are more than 3.8 million breast cancer survivors in the U.S. This includes women still being treated and those who have completed treatment. Taking into consideration that treatments improve over time, women now being diagnosed with breast cancer may have a better outlook.
Still, with a lot of uncertainty, Jackie is ready to make the best of life with breast cancer. The only thing she is not ready to do is to let go:
“I'm not going anywhere! I have too much to see.”
- Jackie Aguilera