Last month Jessica Purcell celebrated her 38th birthday. Living with stage 4 metastatic breast cancer (MBC), she knows birthdays are not guaranteed.
“Aging is an absolute gift,” she said. “I will never take it for granted.”
Sonya Negley, executive director of METAvivor, the only U.S. organization dedicated to awarding annual stage 4 breast cancer research, cites 30% of all breast cancer patients will develop MBC, while it accounts for 100% of breast cancer deaths. The popular fundraising movements give an average of 2-5% of their research funding to MBC, and is instead focused on prevention and early detection, which does nothing to help those already diagnosed. METAvivor dedicates 100% of every donation and 100% of net proceeds from every fundraiser (after event expenses) to MBC research grants.
“Our mission is to transition metastatic breast cancer from a terminal diagnosis to a chronic, manageable disease with a good quality of life,” Negley said. “MBC effects women and men, young and old. For young moms like Jess, the younger they are when diagnosed the harder it is on them and their families.”
In 2018, Purcell was a healthy 35-year-old pregnant woman when she learned the lump in her breast was invasive ductal carcinoma, one of the most common types of breast cancer. An Army Reserve captain at U.S. Special Operations Command and an Air Force civilian employee at U.S. Central Command at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, Florida, she tackled her diagnosis like she did jumping from planes as a jumpmaster or serving in Afghanistan: with grit and determination.
“Failure has never been an option,” she said. “The only option, then and now, is to fight and live for my kids and my family.”
She underwent a left radical mastectomy and a complete axillary lymph node dissection, which removed the lymph nodes under her left arm. At 20-weeks pregnant, Purcell started chemotherapy and completed 12 rounds prior to Jameson’s birth in March 2019. Today he is a healthy little boy who loves playing with his big sister, Josephine, 3.
“I just watch him sometimes in awe because he’s perfect,” she said. “Jameson and I went through some serious challenges together while I was pregnant with him. Our bond is so strong; it is unbreakable.”
Purcell’s fight continues. In July 2019, a few days after she completed her last day of radiation, she learned the cancer had metastasized to her liver leaving her with a diagnosis of MBC. In August 2020, she received a clean PET scan, meaning there is no evidence of active disease in her body. However, she lives with terminal cancer. Purcell takes a daily chemotherapy pill, which she will likely take for the rest of her life or until it stops keeping the cancer cells from spreading. Side effects include throbbing bone and joint pain, extreme fatigue, low blood counts, and bouts of nausea.
“Taking care of my kids keeps my mind focused, but I’m human and sometimes I get so angry,” she said. “But, I tell my family the anger in me means I’m still fighting. I have a lot of fight left in me.”
Purcell has started focusing on her mental and physical wellness. In May she has resumed work as an Air Force civilian employee, although she works remotely because of COVID-19. In the coming months, she will have reconstructive surgery. To the outside world, Purcell looks like a typical working mom.
“I don’t look terminal,” she said. “My hair is growing back and my makeup is on. There are so many people who walk around and their illness is not obvious. It doesn’t mean I’m not battling my disease every day. Don’t be quick to judge people and remember to be kind.”
Through all of the treatments and surgeries, the tears and anger, and navigating life with MBC, Purcell refuses to let cancer win.
“No matter what I take a shower, get dressed and put on my makeup every day,” she said. “At my lowest points I’d take a selfie to remind myself of how strong I am and how far I’ve come. It surprises me how much I can handle, how much anyone can handle, when diagnosed with terminal cancer.”
Knowing firsthand life is fragile, Purcell focuses on the people and things that matter most to her. She chooses to not be happy, which she believes is a temporary emotion, but instead lives joyfully, which is a state of mind.
“Relying on my faith, I look to the future and I’m excited. I have plans,” she said. “I want to see my kids grow up, get married, and have babies of their own. Maybe one day I will buy a vacation home. Cancer may knock me down, but it can’t take my joy. I have a lot of birthdays left to celebrate.”