Facing death, Jessica Clem embraces life and helps everyone around her do the same.
Jessica Clem with her son, Carson, and
husband, Patrick, at their rural Nevada home.
She made her entrance wearing a pink satin robe and boxing gloves.
The crowd went wild. This fighter, who was bouncing on her feet with her thin arms raised high, was the reason they were all there. They'd come to applaud her amazing strength and indomitable spirit. They'd come to support her cause. They'd come to laugh and cry and dance with her.
And they'd come to tell her goodbye.
Because Jessica Clem, who had been nicknamed "Rocky" by her friends, was dying of cancer. But her story isn't about dying. It's about how to live while you're doing it.
"Jessica has overcome her disease in many ways," says her oncologist, Dr. Larry Otteman with McFarland Clinic. "She's never let the disease, particularly her prognosis, dictate how she's going to live her life. She's taken something terrible and turned it into something positive."
In 2000, Jessica felt a lump in her breast and eventually was diagnosed with early stage 1 breast cancer. She had surgery, did four rounds of chemotherapy and five weeks of radiation at the William R. Bliss Cancer Center at Mary Greeley Medical Center.
Because her form of cancer grew with estrogen, she went through hormonal treatments to block production of the hormone. After she was declared cancer-free in 2006, Jessica and her husband, Patrick, decided it was time to start a family. But it was going to be a challenge because of the cancer treatments.
"I traded my oncologist for a fertility specialist," she says, displaying her always-present sense of humor.
In 2007, Jessica gave birth to Carson.
"Becoming a mom is fabulous," she says of her son. "He's a true miracle. We didn't know if we were going to get him, but we got him, and he's healthy and happy and makes you forget all about your troubles."
But nine months after Carson's birth, Jessica experienced shortness of breath while running. The cancer had returned and metastasized to her lungs.
"You think the first one's bad, but that one really sucked," she says of the second diagnosis. "The first time, the doctors told me I wasn't going to die from it, that it was going to be a bump in the road. It was when it comes back that you need to really worry. I was very angry, more angry than the first time around."
Anger eventually gave way to acceptance and action.
"You're dealt your hand in life, and you're given choices to react poorly or react positively. I choose to be happy," she says. "Just because I have cancer doesn't mean I can't enjoy my life. I was born optimistic. Humor
really helps. I was funny before, but I think I'm funnier now.”
Jessica helped the Cancer Resource Center plan the first retreat for couples facing metastatic breast cancer. She raised money for breast cancer through a "Breastfest" event. But the high point was in April when her life force shined bright.
Jessica had been, in her words, "feeling like crap" when her sister-inlaw suggested a party was in order.
"In my prior life I liked to socialize and have social events. This was going to be the last hurrah," she says. "And I like humor for relief, so I thought about making it like I'm throwing my own funeral. Why not be there to enjoy it? Have people say all those nice things to me, and me have an opportunity to say things to them. I don't want people to remember me as the woman in the hospital bed. I've never been that way. I want life to be fun."
And so, Jessica and her friends and family planned what they called a "FUN-eral." And it wasn't just going to be a party. It was going to raise funds for the place where Jessica had received so much care and compassion: The William R. Bliss Cancer Center.
They expected a few hundred people to attend. Over 500 people, from seven different states, came. "It felt like a wedding," she says. "A couple of people came who had seen a notice in the paper. They didn't know me but just wanted to come and show their support. Those people just blew me away."
They hoped to raise $20,000. At last count (money is still coming in), Jessica's "last hurrah" had raised more than $77,000 for the Cancer Center.
"She's touched so many people and is leaving a legacy in so many ways," says Otteman. "She'll have an impact on what we're able to do at the cancer center that will be felt for decades after she's gone."
"She makes me proud every day," says her mom, Nancy Miller. "We've all been pulled along by her excitement for life. She's taught us all a great deal."
Jessica spoke at the Mary Greeley Medical Center Foundation's Annual Benefit, and at several points she told the crowd, "I'm dying, and it's OK."
She has ended her treatments and now receives HOMEWARD Hospice care. She's put herself in God's hands and is focused on spending as much time as she can with Patrick and Carson. Her goal is to make it to the end of the year and get to see Carson start kindergarten.
Carson has only known his mom with cancer. He knows cancer is caused by bad cells in the body and that people can die from it. He knows his mom may die one day soon.
"I do scrapbooks, videos, a journal—everything so he'll have a sense of who I am, what I was like," Jessica says. "My biggest fear is that he wouldn't remember me. I'm making sure he will have a memory."
Anyone who knows Jessica knows creating memories isn't going to be a problem.
"I'm a force," she says. You'll believe it after spending even just a few minutes with her.
"She's really been the force that has helped her family and friends cope with all this," says Otteman. "She's an inspiration to other women, and
she's an inspiration to those of us who provide care to cancer patients."
To make a gift to the Jessica Clem Fund in support of the William R. Bliss Cancer Center contact the Foundation office at 515-239-2147, 111 Duff Avenue, Ames, IA 50010 or make a gift online.
Editor’s Note: Jessica Clem died Tuesday, June 26, just as this issue of the magazine was going to press. We are honored to have had an opportunity to meet Jessica and present this inspiring profile of her. Everyone at Mary Greeley Medical Center extends their sympathy to Jessica’s family.