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Student beats cancer twice before graduating

KARINA DUNN | 5/19/2014, 10:30 a.m.

Et Cetera at Eastfield College

A few months ago, Wendy Jacobson was planning her own funeral. She and her daughter, Brooke, discussed the arrangements over the phone.

“She said, ‘Mom, I hate to ask you this, but do you want to be cremated?’ ” Jacobson said.

Jacobson, a 52-year-old Eastfield College student diagnosed with leiomyosarcoma of the diaphragm, a rare form of cancer, understood she might not survive her upcoming three-hour surgery. The phone call made it reality. Brooke flew from California to care for her mother.

“That’s a hard talk to have with your daughter,” she said.

Doctors diagnosed her in mid-September 2013. To her knowledge, there are only 12 reported cases in the world.

“I’m the second survivor that I’m aware of,” she said.

The causes of leiomyosarcoma of the diaphragm are unknown. An absence of physical symptoms complicates the diagnosis in its early stages. By the time she was diagnosed, tumors had already grown. In mid-November, surgeons removed tumors around her heart and two major arteries. She relaxed a little, thinking of herself as a survivor.

She and her daughter are focusing on different kinds of arrangements now. Jacobson graduated from Eastfield on Saturday, and Brooke, 33, is pregnant with her first child.

“She’s having a girl,” Jacobson said. “I’ll have to go visit.”

Jacobson said beating cancer made her more concerned about her future, personally and professionally.

“I didn’t know if I was going to live or die,” she said. “I wanted to finish school, just in case.”

To make better use of her time left, Jacobson returned to school in the months preceding her surgery.

“My experience at Eastfield reinforced my desire for a bachelor’s degree,” Jacobson said. “I don’t know how to thank [my professors].”

Her professors’ encouragement enabled her to continue pursuing her interest in social work. In addition to the associate degree she will receive Saturday, Jacobson has also completed her bachelor’s degree in business management at Tarleton State. She wants to pursue a Master of Social Science.

“You need a degree to take advantage of possibilities,” Jacobson said. “Getting a degree is about focusing on living my life.”

Math professor Erika Glaser, who taught Jacobson in her online statistics class last fall, said she was surprised when Jacobson enrolled in her class after the diagnosis.

“She emphasized the point that [cancer] wasn’t going to stop her from completing her goals,” Glaser said. “The future is bright for her.”

Physical education instructor Bob Flickner taught Jacobson in his Beginning Walking for Fitness class. During labs, he saw her determination to excel and build her stamina.

“I think the exercise gave her some hope,” Flickner said. “How we approach hardships is 95 percent of the problem … It’s inspiring to have a student like Wendy graduate.”

Jacobson said several conversations with Flickner gave her the idea to continue her personal development. Then she focused on developing a healthy body and lifestyle.

“Too many people underestimate the importance of healthy living,” Jacobson said.

Two battles with cancer taught Jacobson the importance of physical and mental health. She exercised the wrong kind of thinking in the past.