Competitive cyclist Jillian Jacobs was diagnosed with stage 3 cancer while training for the 2016 SA champs. Her life became “a different race”. Amidst surgery and chemotherapy she never lost sight of her dream and continued to train and ultimately compete. This is her story.
When I turned 50 my coach, Ian Martin said to me, “What about that gold that you deserve?” That’s when I started my preparation for the South African cycling champs to be held March 2016.
I have always done reasonably well in cycling. However, “life” and family were always more important than pursuing the focused competitive side of the sport. So a strategic training plan was put together and the process began in preparing me for SA Champs.
I was reminded that patience is a virtue and the progressive introduction of specific nutrition and intervals became part of my daily routine. The first measure to assess how I was progressing would be the Ride4Victory cycle race.
Sunday the 27th of September arrived and I came first in the 40plus category. My numbers were looking positive and the results indicated that I was on track.
The following Tuesday I went for a scheduled colonoscopy. On Friday I received a call from my Doctor. He wanted to see me urgently…. I froze. I remember phoning Ian but my words weren’t making sense. He accompanied me to the Doctor. As his Russian accent unpacked the results, all I could make out was “…bla bla bla Cancer bla bla.”
What did I just hear? I looked around and looked at Ian dumb founded. Me? A fit athlete who has just won a race and held a trophy half her size. Can’t be.
[bctt tweet=” I entered the Doctors room a fit cyclist and left with a broken spirit.” username=”nutreats”]
Ian retrieved all the facts. His expression was intense and focused. I entered the Doctors room a fit cyclist and left with a broken spirit.
Ian and I sat down and true to Ian’s analytical and calculated mindset, he starting discussing a prospective strategy to tackle what he called “this race”. Not cancer, this race. This was another race and it would be treated as such.
On Monday the 2nd of October I was admitted immediately for an emergency corrective colon surgery. Coming out of theatre I had mixed emotions of wanting to tackle this head on and just run away. My beautiful daughters, Leah and Daitin were there and I felt hopeless in trying to comfort them and put on a positive face.
My family visited me and it was surreal. It seemed we were all avoiding the topic of “I have stage 3 cancer”.
In the next 2 weeks Ian visited me two to three times a day. We kept focused on what was required for “this race”; Nutrition, supplements, rest, recovery, rehab post-surgery. I received a “beautiful trophy” from the operation. I was cut through all my abdominal muscles – this would take time to repair in order to revert back to full functionality.
I left the hospital weighing 39kgs.
When meeting with my oncologist, the tone was set. “Jillian you have to have chemotherapy.” I battled with this. I had done extensive research and wanted to go the natural route. She won and we agreed I would complete chemotherapy. Every two weeks, for six months. Ouch – what a roller coaster ride. During this phase of “my training for this race”, I experienced one step forward and two steps back.
I had good days and more bad days. There was however some positivity thrown into the pot when my oncologist told me I should continue to ride, albeit conservatively.
During this time I still had my eye on SA Champs and the full support of my coach. Sadly, many people (with all their good intentions) tried to convince me not to ride. They questioned my coach and sometimes even phoned him. They wanted him to “reprimand and demand me to stop riding”. My oncologist was amazing and kept reassuring me to continue to ride. The nurses at the oncology Centre in Sandton were amazing too. Their support and admiration of my positivity to do this race by continuing to ride spurred me on.
Things were progressing well and I was on course to “conquer this race” when a spanner was thrown into the works. I started experiencing excruciating abdominal pain. I was rushed to hospital and another emergency correctional operation was performed to remove scar tissue caused by the first operation.
The scar tissue caused my colon to twist and a further 45cm of my colon was removed. I was back to square one. I had to start all over again. I experienced pain, discomfort, fear of dying, and rehab. I was looking forward, focusing ahead, and trying positive thinking, Need I say more.
During this “process” one is encouraged to have a different outlook on life. You are provided with an opportunity to wear “glasses” that allow you clear vision and clarity on specific things. This becomes a natural sifting process where you unclutter your life of things and people that really do not add value to your life.
You know that at any time your path may change due to circumstances beyond your control. This becomes your reality and you either live with it or opt out…I opted in. I would still continue “this race” albeit with slight detours and obstacles.
Being mindful and trying to be present has helped me find a new meaning and existence. I may have scar tissue and scars – or as my Coach calls them – “trophies” to record or show my journey. These are little reminders of my triumphs (not losses) during my current “race”.
I continued on my journey of preparing for “this race” but did not forget SA Cycling champs in March 2016. I followed my progressive training plan and had to adjust overload relative to chemotherapy sessions and the way I felt.
I experienced many incidents along the way. Had I not have loyal and unwavering support, I probably would have abandoned all efforts to keep going in pursuit of “this race” and SA Champs.
Despite being diligent with my food intake, overtime I lost weight. I received many comments around my weight. People told me “that I must eat more”. Little did people know I was trying my utmost to retain body weight. Colon cancer is not called the “silent killer” for nothing. As my weight increased, I was starting to feel a little better.
March arrived and “Luckily”, due to my little setbacks, my scheduled chemo was going to fall nicely on the weeks either side of SA Champs to be held in KZN. Full of anxiety and excitement I lined up for SA Champs. The day represented two different races, the actual race and “this race” I was busy with.
The conditions were tough and the heat affected many a rider. These Champs next to “this race” can probably be described as one of the most difficult races I have competed in. Suffering when you are fit is one thing. Suffering when you are not so fit and busy with chemotherapy is another.
Having my support team present and the desire to be in the moment was my driving force to finish the race. I came home 4th just missing out on a medal.
As I crossed the finish line, I fell into my coaches arms. With endless shakes caused by the neuropathy /chemotherapy treatment, he said to me, “Today you have won and only you know what that is, no one else. This is yours – it is a privilege to experience”.
Thereafter, I continued on with “this race”. I had highs and lows “dodging another bullet” with another possible operation.
During this process my daughters have been amazing and I have become closer with certain family members. My mother and I have had wonderful conversations.
This process, this journey, this race, has shown me that life is all about “smelling the roses”. I continue this race and look forward to lining up on the 13th September for the Race4Victory, the race I won the weekend before I was diagnosed with colon cancer and underwent an emergency operation.
This is not about cancer but I see it rather about me. Me finding meaning and purpose, me enjoying company of my daughters, me enjoying riding and what it provides, albeit a win, albeit health, albeit just shooting the breeze.
I live because I choose to and I must decide how I ride this race. I ride with purpose and with celebration.
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She started riding in her final year of University after saving up money to buy her first bicycle. She rode for freedom and fun and slowly became competitive.
In 1998 she went to the World Champs in Austria, where she raced 3 races, placing 6th on a Hill climb Time Trial.
In 2011 she decided to try mountain biking and soon started winning shorter distance races. She still rides for fun. “It's not about winning or losing,it’s about choosing to do the sport I love!”