The day after being diagnosed last August with aggressive ovarian cancer at age 36, Jen Burgess Thompson gathered up her two young sons, some friends and her husband. They drove to Mt. Bachelor and made a movie.
In it, the stunning blond runs through a golden field of wildflowers with her sweet and handsome sons, Cohen and Cooper. She writes messages on a chalkboard like "We will not be defeated" and "Eff Cancer." She tears pages from a small notebook after writing bits of her story. "I am Jen" "I am a mom" "I am an artist" "I am not cancer." The pages blow away and snag in the flowers.It is deeply moving and has been watched thousands of times. The video is the beginning of her very public and vivid chronicling of her battle with cancer. Thompson, who has her own photography studio in Redmond, documents every step of the journey, through her blog, on Facebook, and in the photography and videography of some of the most talented photographers and cinematographers in Bend who donated their time and effort to the Source's
2012 Woman of the Year.
What Thompson puts out there is visceral and it's gripped thousands of people. She's gathered 4,989 Facebook friends as of last week; people have posted hopeful songs they wrote for her on YouTube; benefits to help cover her medical costs have been held all over town; and dozens of people, some strangers, have cooked meals for Thompson's family.
This year we devoted our Women's Issue to a new brand of feminism embodied by Thompson. She's infused these past months, in the face of a terrible reality, with an authenticity, inner fire, confidence and power that, to us, represents everything it means to be a strong woman today.
"Look how raw she is with her blog and Facebook," said Jamie Sertic-Priaulx, who was friends with Thompson in high school and reconnected with her on Facebook a few years ago. "Everything's out there; from her incisions from surgery to grotesque things that are real. That's what inspires me, that you can go through this and become stronger not weaker."
CANCER'S STEALTH ATTACK
Initially, Thompson's symptoms were slight with abdominal bloating and sporadic cramps not unlike those of a menstrual cycle.
"I would be doing casual things and would buckle over in pain and didn't really know why," said Thompson.
She knew something was off, and trusted the messages her body was sending. After three trips to the doctor and finally an ultrasound, the results were undeniable; ovarian cancer.
"[My doctors] told me it came on hard and fast," said Thompson. "By the time you have symptoms of any kind, it's already so advanced that you're screwed."
Ovarian cancer is an exceedingly rare disease, with only 21,990 new diagnoses reported last year. That translates to roughly .01 percent of the population of U.S. women. Only seven percent of those with ovarian cancer are between the ages of 35 and 44, according to the Surveillance Epidemiology and End Results Program of the National Cancer Institute.
"I get a lot of questions about what my symptoms were, and people get freaked out because of my age," said Thompson. "My odds aren't good. I have a 20 percent chance of making it. We have moments where we face reality and mortality. This is probably going to happen. I'm not going to put my head in the sand about it."
Initially some of Thompson's supporters tried to discourage her from researching the harsh realities of ovarian cancer because they didn't want her losing hope, and perhaps they wanted her to focus on her faith. She educated herself anyway and embraced her battle with humor. She named her tumor Herm, because the tumor reminded her of a germ.
Her friend, Lori Hewitt, gave her a plush, grimacing Ugly Doll to personify Herm. On her blog, amistillagirl.com, there is a wry yet haunting profile photo of Thompson's swollen abdomen just before the surgery to remove her tumor and reproductive organs, with Herm lurking in the background.
"Even people that I don't know, know Herm," said Thompson. "He came on the ride with us to Portland and into surgery, and then we got rid of him."
To kill the remaining cancer cells, which were sprinkled like rice flakes throughout her abdomen, Thompson began an aggressive chemotherapy routine that made her physically sick.
There are many, many posts from friends on her Facebook wall from those dark chemo days, similar to this one from Cassie Satkowiak. "Hey there pretty lady. Think of you often. Just wanted to say hello. You are a bad ass."
The outpouring of support she's received from the Central Oregon community and her professional networks has been crucial due to the financial and physical toll of cancer treatments and the fact that she has separated from her husband.
"There are so many people to thank it's overwhelming," she said.
10 Barrel Brewing Company, Between the Covers and other organizations have hosted benefits to raise money for her fight. Supporters provided more than four months of meals, which was vital assistance to this single mother fighting for her life while raising children.
Thompson's close friend, Cheryl McIntosh, a perennial figure in her story and a tremendous supporter of Thompson, speaks as if she is battling the disease too.
"It's not like when you're diagnosed, you're handed a guidebook, or they let you know what to expect," said McIntosh. She said Thompson often differentiates herself from other patients when she goes in for treatments, with an attitude of, 'This is not who I am. Cancer doesn't define me, and I'm getting the hell out of the hospital at soon as possible.'
Thompson's willpower was noticed by several hospital staff members like Art Therapy Volunteer Everett Kurtz, who never celebrated her birthday until she met "bald and beautiful" Thompson.
Kurtz was leading an art project with Thompson and her family on Kurtz' fifty-fourth birthday at St. Charles in Redmond when something clicked. She realized how hard Thompson was fighting to live to her next birthday, yet she didn't care to celebrate her own.
She said to Thompson, "OK, I know cancer is not fair, and I'm so sorry you're here, but thank you so much because you probably gave me the best birthday present I've ever had in my life. You gave me the gift of knowing that I should celebrate myself, and I will always have that because of you."
the road ahead
Last month, Thompson informed her Facebook friends that she had an excruciating intestinal blockage that required surgery by posting a photo she took while lying on a gurney, in an ambulance rushing her to the hospital. She developed a Staph infection after the surgery.
Recent obstacles aside, Thompson is on an upswing, focusing on gaining her strength and said she looks forward to getting back to work.
A chalkboard in Thompson's home counts down the number of her chemotherapy treatments, which are crossed off with an x once finished. Words like "evil," "icky" and "ca-ca" are written in chalk next to the treatments.
Now, all the numbers have been crossed out, and Thompson posted last week on her Facebook page, ":: just went to the doctor for the first time in 6 months, where they didn't make me schedule ANOTHER appointment. YES!"
She had 180 likes within several hours.
"I don't have any plans to do anything dramatic," she said of getting better. " [But] I always felt like this was a temporary pause, a parenthesis in the plan," she said.
By voicing her story so loudly, to nearly 5,000 Facebook friends and multitudes of blog visitors, she has turned the volume up, raised the awareness, and heightened the understanding of this disease and those it affects.
"There was an instant need to document," said Thompson. "And it puts things in perspective for a lot of people. If being vocal about it all gets that result, then, hell yeah, why not?"
The way she's done it earned her our respect, our admiration and our title of Woman of the Year.